HOME PAGE
HOME | CALENDAR | FORUM | MUSICIANS | CONTACT     
Bobby Hales
interview by Guy MacPherson
October 23, 2006

There's nothing in the Vancouver music scene that Bobby Hales hasn't accomplished, from nightclub bandleader to composer/arranger to commercial work to TV and film scores to the presidency of the Vancouver Musicians' Association. He talks about all these things, and more, in this phone conversation with Guy MacPherson.


Guy MacPherson: Let's start from the beginning. I don't even know where you were born.

Bobby Hales: In Saskatchewan. Avonlea, Saskatchewan.

And that's where you grew up?

I came out to the west coast when I was about 14 or 15. Moved to Chilliwack.

You came out with your family?

Yeah.

When did you start playing the trumpet?

I started when I was about eight years old.

Did you grow up in a musical household?

Yeah. My grandfather used to have, years before I was born, a town band in a small town. He used to have a band. He made violins and he played pretty near all the instruments, like cornet and clarinet. He taught all the local guys. So they had sort of a concert band years before I was born. He had an old cornet there that I came by and started taking lessons in Regina on it. And when I moved to the coast, to Chilliwack, there was much more musical activity there. They had a senior band, they had choirs and all kinds of things going on. I had a little dance band, a quintet, when I was 16.

You were a leader even then.

Well, yeah, sort of a leader of the thing, I guess. We used to play dances in Hope at a place called the Igloo Supper Club! We used to call it the I.G. Loo Club. It was just a dance hall. A Kiwanis dance hall. So when I was 16 I was up there playing these dance gigs on the weekend.

Did you study privately or in school?

I studied with a guy in Regina named Eddy Mang. I guess, in retrospect, there were some rather strange lessons. He used to say, "Let's hear you play this." Then he'd shut the door and leave (laughs). It was about an hour-fifteen, an hour-and-a-half drive to Regina at that time. So once every two weeks I went in for a lesson. So that's where I got the start. But when I went to Chilliwack, I didn't take any lessons there. We had a dance band at school. I thought it was the greatest but I guess it was pretty raw talent, you know? We had a trombone, two trumpets, I think three saxes. And a music teacher moved in, a guy named John Bayfield moved in from North Vancouver, and he'd been in the junior bands in Vancouver. He was a very good clarinet player. So he sort of guided us along. And then we had another band in Chilliwack called the Chilliwack Senior Band. It was like a concert band. A brass band. And in it, they had a big band dance band. And we used to get together once in a while and play in that. So I got some basic experience there.

Did you just take to the horn when you first started or did you have to be forced into it?

I liked it from the time I started it. At that time, when I was a kid, Harry James was like a real super movie star, right? And I used to go to these movies and I'd see this trumpet player, this guy named Harry James, and I thought, "Wow, that's fascinating." He played so good. So beautifully.

I guess now the equivalent is the guitar. Every kid has a guitar because the celebrities are the rock stars.

Yeah. The sexiest instrument was the trumpet in those days, there's no doubt about it.

And that's why you chose it!

Well, I don't think so. I just liked the sound of it. And it seemed to be the most attractive for young players, you know?

I chose it as a kid because it only had three valves and looked the easiest.

(laughs) It certainly isn't the easiest.

No. I learned that!

It never has been easy. I wished it had more valves; I'd have more excuses! But as I said, I didn't get studying until I went to college. I didn't really study from any good teachers until I went to college.

Did you always want to be a musician?

Yes, I did. For as long as I can remember. I thought at first I'd want to be a music teacher. So when I graduated out of grade 12 I went back for grade 13. I was going to be a music teacher. I just didn't like the academic approach at all. I liked the music part. I had to go to UBC and you have to get a teacher's degree, of course, to teach music and specialize. But I didn't have the patience for the academics. I wanted to play, you know?

So did you end up going to UBC?

No, no, no. I never went. I say that's what you had to do.

But you did go to college, you said.

I started out working in a bank first, the Bank of Nova Scotia, for about three years. And my parents moved down to Los Angeles and took out their American citizenship. For reasons still beyond me. But they did. I guess their family was all grown up and I was gone. But anyhow, I went down there on a holiday once. I used to play an Olds trumpet. They had the factory down there in Fullerton, California. So I went there to check the factory out to see how they made the horns and I ran into a guy named Raphael Méndez, who was a concert trumpet player at that time. He was like the most famous guy in North America for legit playing. And he said, "Well, what do you want to do?" I said, "I'd like to play jazz." He said, "Oh, then what you want to do is you want to go over to Westlake College here in Hollywood." So I go to Westlake College in Hollywood – this is while I'm on my holidays, of course – and I'm approaching this college and I hear this big band just wailing away. I thought, "Oh, my God, listen to this!" It was a fantastic band. Anyhow, it was called Westlake College of Modern Music and all they taught was music; there was no academics. So I took an ear test while I was there, which was rather funny. It was one of these tests where they go, "Beep... boop: Which note is higher?" (laughs) So as you can guess, any fool could pass it. So I took the ear test and they said, "Well, yeah, you made it and you're okay." So I came back to Canada and talked to my parents and told them what I wanted to do and I saved up some money. My parents helped me out, as well. And I went down and studied at Westlake for two years. And it was a great college because all the guys teaching you were professionals that were working at nights. They weren't just teachers; they all were playing.

Any names we'd recognize.

Kenny Farrar, he's still teaching. I talked to him the other day. He's a drummer. Dick Grove started his teaching there. He taught beginning piano and ear training. But that's where he started his career. I don't know if you know Dick Grove, but he had a big school in L.A. for years, too. Dick used to write these long, long compositions (laughs). I remember playing on them on Robbie's [Dave Robbins] show. But he was a great piano player. So all you studied there was modern music. You learned how to write it and compose. Anything you wanted to know they could teach you. It was all shortcuts. So it was just exactly what I wanted. So the second year I went there, I got a bursary and I instructed what they called the C Band. They had an A Band, a B Band, and a C Band. And also I ran the correspondence course. So I got a reduction in my tuition for doing that.

How old were you?

I was 23, 22, 21. In that area.

Did you ever end up teaching?

No, not for a couple of years. After I graduated out of Westlake, I went up to Sylvan Lake, Alberta, and played with Paul Perry's band. P.J. Perry's dad. I played with his band. And then I went back to school for another year and graduated in September, 1957. Then I went back and played at the lake again. Then I got married that fall. Then I came out to the coast.

To Vancouver.

Yeah. I knew a gentleman before I left town named Bud Kellet, who was conducting this Kiwanis Junior Boys Band at the time. They actually had boys' bands and no girls were allowed (laughs). Anyhow, I got a job there as an assistant conductor. Then I did some teaching. I had about 20 or 30 students a week. I was just struggling like mad just to get things going. And finally what happened, there were about 15 or 20 trumpet players hanging around, all very good players, everybody looking for work. But somehow or other, the rumour got around that I was from Hollywood. And all of a sudden my phone started ringing. And one of the first guys that called me was Dave Robbins. Now, he had the band at the Cave at that time.

What year was this?

That would be '58, I guess. I came here in September of '57, so within a year I was playing the Cave. I remember one of the first acts I played was the Mills Brothers. So I had to phone my mother and dad. They thought I was a superstar. And I did, too. I thought, "I can't believe it." Because they were big stars at the time. And Robbie, of course, was very heavily involved with jazz. I wasn't playing in any of his jazz bands as of yet. And then what happened was, Fraser MacPherson – I think you know him very well – was working at Isy's Supper Club. I used to go down there and sub once in a while for a trumpet player named Carse Sneddon, a very good trumpet player and great guy. So I walk in one night just to hear the band and Fraser says to me, in that voice of his that's twelve octaves below mine, "Do you want to be a leader, kid?" And I said, "What?" He says, "Well, I'm taking the band into the Cave. And Isy's looking for a band. So go down and talk to him." So on Fraser's advice I went down and talked to Isy. And I didn't have a band or anything. I knew a few guys around. So my first band was P.J. Perry on alto – it was just a quintet – and a guy the name of John Gittens, he's from Toronto now, a really good piano player. And Al Johnson, who was playing drums with Fraser, stuck around for a while and played with me. But finally George Ursan came and played drums with me. And the bass player was Tony Clitheroe. Chuck Knott started out. He started first. But Tony Clitheroe was a really good bass player and stuck around and played in the quintet at Isy's. And we were there for quite some time.

I know the Cave had big name acts. What was happening at Isy's?

Well, we sort of had the relatives of the stars (laughs). Dean Martin's uncle and... They always had a chorus line there of girls, and things like that, which I would arrange music for and believe it or not, it was a great help in learning how to arrange and how to write and how to do things, a little conducting and whatnot. Then Robbie started to use me on his CBC jazz shows. Fraser was in there and Dave Quarin and Paul Ruhland and Chris Gage. And Al Johnson was playing drums. And of course Robbie on trombone. Stew Barnett and myself were the trumpets for a while. It was a small group. Robbie gave me a chance. First I did a big band arrangement. The changes were based on Sweet Georgia Brown. Robbie liked it, that's why he got me. He'd get me to write for the smaller show, which was really kicks because I got a lot of experience there. And eventually I started to get some TV work. But I didn't get much radio work. Dave had the radio thing under control. We did some beautiful stuff with him. We did the World's Fair in Seattle with him. A lot of good gigs. About 1963 I got a call from TV and I was musical director on Let's Go, which was a rock'n'roll show for teeny-boppers. And there I was, a jazz bum with this chore of scoring all this music for these young singers. There was Terry Jacks and Susan Jacks and Tom Northcott. As a matter of fact, it was the same series that Anne Murray made her big move on. It was designed for young kids who liked the Hit Parade at that time. It was a lot of work because we started out with four musicians who couldn't read. They couldn't do anything. And I would teach them by rote four tunes. We'd put a tape on say, "Now, that's a G chord there. It sounds like this." And I'd hit the piano. "Can you make a chord like that?" "Yeah, okay." So we'd struggle and sweat to these four tunes. It would take me a week to teach them. Finally a producer, Ken Gibson, came along. He said, "I've got an idea." He says, "I want to do medleys. All I want to do is the chorus, the biggest part of the tune, and move on to the next one." I said, "Well, how are we going to do that? These guys can't read." So we auditioned people and found a good band, guys that could read. And I wrote them out these huge medleys with at least ten tunes in every medley and there'd be at least three of them on a show. So about 30 tunes a show. Toronto had a big band playing theirs; we had this four-piece band. The show became number one in Canada.

Do you have any copies of it?

I don't have any. I would think Ken Gibson might. But I wasn't allowed to be on the show because I was too old. I was 25. Although I did have the drummer George Ursan on there. He was a little older. But he could read, right? And a piano player named Bob Buckley, who could read really well. And also, at 16 this guy was a great composer and a great orchestrator. Terry Frewer was on guitar. He does a lot of film work now. Doug Edwards was the bass player. We had different people at different times but that was basically the band. And another bass player named, of all things, Glen Miller. Not the original. But it was hard to find young guys that read music. About '65 I decided to get my big band chops together. I'd been writing all this commercial stuff and it was bugging me so I thought, well, my hobby would be jazz. I finally figured it out that to be a jazz musician in Vancouver, like Fraser was and Wally Snider and all these guys, it was sort of like a hobby. We were very lucky to be able to play at the CBC. So I started writing charts about 1965. I phoned up your dad and Wally Snider and all the best guys I thought at that time in town. And we used to rehearse at Isy's at the Supper Club. We started out once every two weeks. I had so many charts. (laughing) I remember Fraser said, "Are we playing this chart again?" Because we were so used to, you know, throw music in front of you, read it, and throw it away, right? So I said, "Yeah, we'll play it till we learn it." And he says, "Oh, okay." He was always putting me on. But it turned out to be a really good band. There was a deejay in town named Bob Smith who worked for CBC. I phoned him up and said, "Lookit, I'm trying to promote this big band and I've got an idea here. See what you think of it." Bob knew everybody, right? He said, "What's your idea?" I said, "Well, I'm going to have an afternoon concert at Isy's with the big band and I want to invite everybody there and the theme is 'This time the band buys you a drink'. And I'd have an open bar there and people would come in and they could have a free drink and I'd pay for it." So Bob got busy. We made up these fancy-looking invitations and sent them out. So the day of the concert, the place was packed. Now, it held about 350 people. This was at noontime. So I'm there and I said, "What have I got myself into?" (laughs) But it really worked well. It got a lot of press. A lot of people knew who I was afterwards. Of course, they all knew who Fraser MacPherson was and Wally Snider and all these other people who'd been around for years, like Stew Barnett. Everybody knew who they were.

So you bought your way into it!

Well, I promoted my way into it. It was a good promotion. Especially a jazz band. All the commercial guys around at that time, they didn't do any of that stuff. So anyhow, that really helped the career in television and whatnot. Eventually, in about '69 I took the band into the Cave. It had changed hands many times by then. They weren't booking many acts because there weren't many acts around.

So it became more of a rock club?

There were a lot of rock acts there but there were still a few people who were around who were straight ahead but not very many. Mitzi Gaynor would come in. But you're right, mostly rock acts would come in and bring in an entirely different crowd. And then eventually it was sold to Danny Becida. I can't remember what year that place closed down. I played the last gig there. (laughing) They tried to sell pieces of it to the public and nobody showed up. Stan Grozina owned the place then. But I can't remember what year that was. I think it was in the '80s somewhere.

Did they bring in an act for the last night?

No, it was just my band. I had a big band in there. And he said, "Come down and buy a hunk of the Cave." But (laughing) nobody showed up. But the TV work and the radio work was good. As a matter of fact, Daryl Duke, who just passed away, the first series of his was a show called The Manipulators. It was like a TV drama on CBC. And Daryl said to me, "Bobby, I want this all dixieland jazz." For his theme. He said, "Write some music here, write some music there. This is how long it is. Okay? Take over." (laughs) That's all he said to me. And I wrote a score for it. I think it was a 12-week series. I wrote a different score for every show. Plus I composed a big band thing which was my first adventure into what you might call jazz-rock. That was one of the things that was happening. There was this change-over from swing music to rock music. So it went for twelve weeks. And then I got a call from a chap named Phil Keegly, who said, "I got a show here I want you to write a theme for and I want some ins and outs for commercials." And I said, "Well, okay." He said, "It's gonna go for 13 weeks anyhow." And that was The Beachcombers.

And that's still running!

Well, I wrote music for it for 16 years, yeah. What I did, I wrote a library. So they'd say, "Write us some travel music. Write some sneaking around music. Write some falling in the water music." And then occassionally they'd say, "We have a special show here. We need this type of music." So I'd go and write some special music for it. Fraser did a lot of stuff on the Clavietta, I remember, that little thing you blew in. It was a big flavour of the month. That was the big instrument of the year at that time for about three or four years. And of course, I eventually got into electronic stuff and all that stuff. But it eventually got so far out it sort of ruined it.

Are you still getting royalties from The Beachcombers?

Yeah, I get some royalties. They're not huge anymore. At one time they were huge because it was playing in Canada seven days a week.

And around the world, too.

Yeah, it was sold all over the world. So I did very well at it, which allowed me to retire when I wanted to, to tell you the truth.

Did you retire?

Well, when I was 55, yeah. I decided that would be it. There was a great crossover going on at that time amongst musicians. We all had long hair and beards and moustaches. We all looked like something out of another world. And we were all jazz bums. I worked the rock'n'roll scene for a while but I found it really conflicting with the way I really felt about music. I was such a jazz enthusiast. But it worked out. It worked out fine for me because I had to adapt to the commercial thing so much. So the jazz thing sort of took a backseat. But I was the first guy in Canada to start writing what they call jazz-rock. I remember we were doing a concert at Simon Fraser University. And none of the guys liked rock'n'roll. George Ursan and I liked it.

Oh, you liked it?

  I liked it so far. Commericially that was what was happening so you had to pretty well keep up with what was going on with the Hit Parade, as we did all our lives, right? So I liked some of it. I didn't like all of it; I liked some of it. But I wrote this piece called Showstopper for a Teenybopper, which was a really fast straight-eighth rock'n'roll jazz... Really far-out. It was atonal. I remember I hired Clare Lawrence on saxophone and I had Terry Frewer playing guitar. And I did this concert up at Simon Fraser University. And the stuff we played first was all straight-ahead jazz. It got this polite applause and that was nice. Then the very last thing we played was this Showstopper for a Teenybopper. Well, the place went crazy. They were screaming, yelling and whistling, just going nuts. And I looked at the band and I says, "Well, what do I say?" That's to show you how rock had taken over. It's here to stay, no doubt about it. So I did adapt that way. Sometimes I thought, gee, I'd like to get back into the swing thing, but when you played swing music for a long time, they just sort of looked at you. Like, "Is that all you do?" You know? So a lot of it was adapting going on musically. I was caught between a rock and a hard place. But I did a movie called Dog Pound Shuffle in '73 with David Soul. Do you remember David Soul?

From Starsky & Hutch?

Yeah. Now, this was before Starsky & Hutch. I wrote one chart for it and we had to sit in when they did the movie. And he was a lot of fun. That was good. I did teach at Douglas College. When Douglas College first opened up I did a jazz arranging and composing course and of course all the guys from my band showed up. They figured they were going to pick my brains and discover the secrets to success. And I finally showed it to them and they said, "Is that all there is?" I said, "Yeah, the rest is hard work." (laughs) But it was good that they all came and studied. Fred Stride and people like that.

What was your writing regimen like? Because you did so many things.

I did a lot of what I call hack writing. I mean, mail order writing. The CBC would phone me up and they'd say, "We've got a show here." In 1975 there was a CAPAC (Composers, Authors and Publishers Association of Canada) TV special. We had about 13 singers on it. And what it was was a revue of 50 years of Canadian pop music. So I had a 21-piece orchestra to back it up. And the CBC would say, "All we can afford is this." They wanted to have strings on it, so we just had to make do with what you had. But that was what I'd call hack writing. Doing pop tunes. So the more efficient at that you were, the more money you could make. And I just followed up guys like Doug Parker, who did a lot of that. And another guy named Al MacMillan, who was a good hack writer. And there's different guys around town that could do it, but I became pretty proficient at it.

Did you ever tell anyone that you weren't really from Hollywood?

Oh, yeah! But the story went around. Some of the guys would say, "We understand you're from Hollywood." And I said, "Yes, I guess so. I only studied there a couple of years..." "Oh! Oh, okay." But, you know, once they heard me play, I mean, I wasn't a slouch. I wasn't as good as some of them but I wasn't a slouch. I could play a little bit. So they welcomed me. I used to say there was always a clique in Vancouver. That was our excuse for not working, was that there was a clique in town. But as I was told by Lorraine McAllister, who was Dal Richards' wife, who has passed on, God bless her, she said, "Yeah, there is a clique in town, Bob. A clique of professionals." And I said, "You know, I never thought of it that way." She said, "Well, that's the truth." And she was right; that was the truth. It was a clique, but of professionals. They were the best.

After spending some time in Hollywood, did you ever consider staying down there? Or moving to Toronto? Why Vancouver?

I was going to stay in the States and I went down to apply to get a green card and the guy said, "You know, I think as soon as you get down there, you'll be going in the army." I said, "Oh, really!" (laughs) I said, "Well, I tell you what, if I go in the army, it won't be down here; it'll be in Canada." So that made my mind up pretty quick not to stay there. Because they had a draft situation at that time in the '50s, right? Then the decision was, of course, whether to go to Toronto or to come to Vancouver. I didn't know a soul in Toronto. Absolutely nobody. And I knew people on the west coast. I'd lived here for a while so I had some friends out in the valley still. So I thought, "Well, I'll try Vancouver." And I was quite amazed at the size of the music scene when I got here because I didn't know a thing about it until I got here. People had told me about it. But I was amazed at the amount of work going on and the professionalism, how good the bands were. I was just in shock. It certainly wasn't a farm team, that's for sure. They all were great players.

And you say it took you about a year to get established here?

Yeah, maybe a little bit longer. A year and a half or so until I finally got a breakthrough. I wrote some charts. That's what got me in, mainly the arranging. That got me in first then eventually they said, "Well, come on out and play." Dave Robbins was really good. He was very helpful. And I played the Cave a lot with Fraser MacPherson, too, with his band. Did a lot of gigs down there with his band, after Isy's. After I had finished at Isy's, Fraser was running the band at the Cave so I did lots of work there. But there was all kinds of work around. There were shows, like ice shows, Broadway shows, shows running out your ears. There was all kinds of work around. And if you could play that stuff... Plus, I had the writing and I had learned to sort of conduct a little bit, so I was self-sufficient that way. As I said, it's a matter of how you adapt to what you got and you can do. Somebody would throw something at you from left field and you had to turn it into a homerun or, "Next!". That was always the problem, being confronted with things you hadn't done.

Was it really the Golden Age of nightlife in Vancouver?

Well, I got the last of it.

When would you say that was?

For the type of music I did, I guess it was in the '80s. After the Cave closed, it really started to disappear. Things were still okay for a while. I guess it would be the '80s.

That's when it ended, you're saying?

Yeah, it was the beginning of the end. And things like Ice Capades, they started using taped music and things like that.

Was it already in full bloom when you moved to Vancouver?

Oh, when I moved here, oh yeah. They had a jazz society that was unbelievable. I remember I did my first jazz concert at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. I had two trumpets, two trombones, two saxophones, piano, bass and drums. Phil Mattey was the president then. He phoned me up one day and said, "We hear you're an arranger." I said, "Well, yeah." He said, "I hear you're a jazz arranger." I said, "Well... yeah, okay." He said, "I'd like to get your group on there. Have you got a group?" I said, "Yeah." I'd been writing for this little 10-piece group and had some charts. So we got together and rehearsed and went there and played. And I couldn't believe it: the Queen Elizabeth was packed. And going back to the Westlake days, one day the second year I was there, a knock comes on the door and I was taking ear training or something. "Bob Hales?" I said, "Yeah." "Shorty Rogers is here to see you." Well, the whole class looked at me like, "Wow, are you ever important!" And Shorty Rogers said, "I hear you're from Vancouver." I said, "Well, sort of." He says, "Well, I want to know about this jazz society they have in Vancouver." I said, "Well, Shorty, I'm afraid I can't tell you much because I don't really live in Vancouver." But he says, "We've heard so much about it down here and we want to know how they organize it." I said, "You might want to write the Vancouver Sun newspaper in Vancouver, B.C., and ask for the jazz critic." I didn't know at that time it was Bob Smith. "See if they can fill you in." He was desperately trying to start something like that in Los Angeles. The society was well known all over the States. As I said, it was packed. You couldn't believe it. And the people would just go nuts. It was the greatest kick to play for those types of audiences. And they were all local bands.

Why do you think they supported something like that then? Because now it's unfathomable to think of a local band headlining the Queen E.

Jazz was in vogue. It was very hip. And for the longest time it was very entertaining. I used to hitchhike from Chilliwack to go see Louis Armstrong and guys like that. And that's what really got me interested. God, these guys are having so much fun and the people are having so much fun. It was a lot of fun until Miles came along and then it sort of got a little bit dark. And you started to lose people in that era. At least that was my feeling, as much as I loved Miles and all the things he did, but I don't think he was much of a showman, as a lot of the guys were. Like, Woody Hermann's band would play at Isy's and they were a lot of fun. Most of these bands, Duke Ellington's band even was fun. It was all like sort of fun and jazz was associated with that fun. It was like rock'n'roll. And it was instrumental music, too, which was amazing that it would be so popular. And as everything goes, as rock moved in, jazz moved out. Jazz since then has become artistic. Then it was just a type of music, you know? You'd go to these gigs and there'd be people walking around with mickeys in their back pocket and getting sloshed. So rock'n'roll pushed jazz out, but we became legit. We were no longer the dope fiends, no longer the far-outers, no longer covered with fads. But we had all those fads, like the berets and all that stuff, and guys reading poetry. You know, the fads in jazz were very prominent then. But they all disappeared and it took a background to rock, which just took over.

Were you guys like celebrities in town?

We were well known, yeah. Oh, yeah, everybody: Fraser and Wally Snider and Stew Barnett. You said their names, everybody knew who we were. They all knew who we were. Because, you know, we were on radio all the time, CBC, and we were on TV all the time. And guys like Lance Harrison had national names. We didn't set out to do that, but yeah, you'd say Fraser MacPherson or Stew Barnett: "Oh, yeah!" They knew them from the Cave, they've seen them play here and they've seen them play there, and CBC would always have specials on. I know Fraser did a lot of music specials with big orchestras. And Dave Robbins. They all knew Dave Robbins. So yeah, we were very well known.

It must have been a fun time.

It was.

Did you know it at the time?

No, we didn't know it at the time. We just did gigs. You'd see people and, "Oh, hi!". They'd wave at you, you know? They'd see your band with every big name that came to town. Of course, if you wanted a good band, you hired the same people. You know, you didn't fool around with any new guys. You got guys that could play those shows. And of course you got recognition for it.

There's that clique!

The clique of professionals. I ended up in it myself. So I can't complain about it.

There was a Cellar versus the Downtown crowd, wasn't there?

Oh, yeah. We started out there with Ray Sikora's big band. A great jazz writer. Totally self-taught. And a great composer. We had a rehearsal band that played at the Cellar every week. There was Donnie Clark, Arnie Chykowski and myself on trumpets, Bill Trussell on trombone, Jimmy Johnson and Dave Quarin on saxophones, Tony Clitheroe was on bass, and George Ursan on drums. And Don Thompson played piano. And they were outsiders. The downtowners, we'd always say, "They can't play jazz! We play better." We were real jazz bums (laughs). And that's where we lived, at the Cellar. We were down there every night it was open and down there every Sunday rehearsing. I remember we did a concert once at Stanley Park, the theatre out there. And Dave Robbins and his big band was on and we were out to get 'em (laughs). Now, we'd been rehearsing every week and the band was really good. It was excellent, man. I mean, every week you'd play Ray's charts and they got tighter and tighter and tighter. And the guys that were busy all the time didn't have time to do that; we had lots of time. And I think we out-smoked them that concert.

It was a battle of the bands?

Yeah. And I'm pretty sure we won. But nobody really knew us because Dave had a pretty big name. I played in both bands. But I know Ray's concert was so hip, it was jazz. Dave's was sort of more commercial jazz. But Ray always had special heads and all these bebop heads he would write arrangements for. Plus he would compose his own tunes. Lovely charts. The best things I ever played in my life. They really were good arrangements. But he just didn't quite have his business chops together. He was an out and out jazzer. That's it. Where the money comes from, I don't know. But he was a great guy. Yeah, we were all the young guys trying to break in.

And some of you did.

Oh, yeah. Well, Tony Clitheroe ended up working first for Fraser at Isy's and he worked for me for a long time. And he still played at the Cellar. He was one of the first guys to play electric bass, of the jazz guys. As a matter of fact, when Buddy Rich played Isy's, Tony was playing electric bass. And Buddy Rich said to me, "What are you using that thing for?" And I said, "Well, what do you mean? Can't you hear it?" He says, "Yeah, I can hear it." "Well, isn't that nice to be able to hear the bass?" Because Tony would tune it to sound exactly like an acoustic bass. So the next time Buddy Rich came back, guess what he had? He had an electric bass. Tony was really good at experimenting and making it sound so acoustic. It was great to hear. It was like having another horn. You could never hear an acoustic bass. But we all had to adapt to situations. George Ursan was a great drummer because he kept up with the rock'n'roll. And he did a lot of commercial work, a lot of jingles and stuff. There was a huge jingle business in town at that time.

What was that time that you're talking about?

That was the '80s. Griffiths-Gibson and those people were really busy with jingles. And then, as with everything else, it just died out. I remember I bought a bunch of equipment for my studio. I spent about $25,000 on a studio, got myself an 8-track Fostex. At that time, CBC didn't even have an 8-track at that time. And I got the drum machines and the computers and all that stuff. I could get 5000 bucks for writing a jingle. Within a year and a half, two years, I couldn't get 500. Because everybody had bought this equipment and were all trying to pay for it so the price war went on. It just got to be dog-eat-dog. So that's what happened with the business. It all became electronic.

So what did you do with your studio?

It's still in the basement. With cobwebs (laughs). You don't really get rid of them because the equipment just runs out of date and nobody wants it. They just say, "Well, no" because the stuff now, the new stuff they have with Mac computers, one little machine can do what five things that I've got down there can do. And better. And that's a lot of what happened, too, with movie writing. Everything became electronic and the machine replaced orchestras. I was getting calls saying, "Well, I want you to do a movie score, but I want it electronic." Well, I got all the stuff and learned the technology and whatnot. I had a hard time living with it for a while. But you have to understand what it is. It's electronic; it's not acoustic. And you have to live with those sounds that these machines make. If it says it's a trumpet, and it doesn't sound like a trumpet, or it doesn't sound like a sax, they put a label on it for acoustic musicians so they learn to run the things and accept it. But that was really hard to do. But a lot of people adapted to it. And a lot of people still do it today. They're fighting it all over the world right now, the electronic music. But there literally was nothing in town that I didn't do, that I can think of. I was music director of the PNE for five years. I produced all the music for them. I booked everything; all the bands. I started their talent show out there. I used to travel the whole province doing that. Of course, now, that's commercial again; there's nothing jazzy about it. And one thing I didn't really like to do, but I did it, was produce the beauty pageant. But a gig's a gig (laughs). With the big band, we were doing four or five jobs a day out there at one time. You'd start in the morning and it went all day. It was great times for us. We made some pretty good money out there.

Lately the press has been saying that Dal Richards has been at the PNE for 50 years but when I was a kid, I remember seeing your band all the time.

That's right. Some people have a selective memory. But Dal's a commercial dance band. He's been around for years and he's got a radio show. So he's got some pretty good PR going. And he supplies a lot of work for a lot of younger musicians. So I've got a great admiration for the guy to last as long as he has. Because for a while there, for about six or seven years, he was, I think, managing hotels or something. But he got back into it. He's a hanger-outer. He goes to everything and I think he does a great job keeping that big band dance music alive. That never was my forte. I used to do commercial dances for conventions and whatnot but it was so much work. That's not where you could make the bulk of your money. That was sort of like ground level employment. If you had a big band casual, that was nice but it usually interfered with something you were doing that paid real money, you know? But he's done a great job, Dal. He's an old friend of mine. As a matter of fact, I think I used to play the show at the Cave back in the '50s, close to the '60s, on Saturday nights, then I'd run like mad up to the roof to play Dal's radio show from the roof. And they'd been there about 20 years at that time! (laughs) They were, like, pasted on the walls, these guys! It was a tenor band. It was a lot of fun to play in.

So Dal came back. Are you ever going to come back?

I'm currently president of the musician's association. And I chose to do that because of some health problems I had. But as I said, retirement came at 55 and I had some health problems, so I had to withdraw from actively playing. As far as writing goes, there was no more writing to do. They didn't need arrangers anymore. It was done electronically. So that all fell apart. I think Fred Stride still does a lot of writing, but he does classical and composes things and stage band work, and like that. He's quite active as far as I know. But the other arrangers, I don't think they can be arrested for having any work of any consequence. So when I retired, at the time my good friend Stew Barnett was president of the local and he decided to retire so I thought rather than sit home and rot, I'll run for that job. It's an elected position. But the thing is, one of the stipulations is that you can't work on the outside. In other words, I can't actively book bands or book myself or work in the business because the concept is that because I'm at the association offices all the time, that I'd have all these jobs feeding in and I'd be able to pick them off instead of somebody else getting them. Which doesn't happen. But however, the sense of fairness has to be there. And it's a good rule. So I couldn't run for president and still continue to run my big band and pick up jobs because right away people think, "Well, yeah, he got the job because he's president of the association." So the rule's very strict. I can work if somebody else hires me. Like, I just took the big band back a couple years ago to Regina on New Year's Eve but a contractor had to hire me; I couldn't hire the band. It was all Vancouver guys. We went back to Regina at the casino there and opened up a new building for them.

And how was that?

Uh, it was a New Year's Eve dance (laughs). New Year's dances are always the same. People who don't go out, come out once a year. It started out a staring contest but we had some fun and they all got dancing eventually. It was a very nice room and they were very nice people. Everybody was very polite. So you see, I could do jobs like that. So if you were to phone me and say, "Bob, I've got a job here and I've got the band together and I want you to play ninth trumpet", well, I could do that. But I couldn't book it myself. And that's fair. It's fair that it's seen to be that nothing's going on there that's underhanded. I'm retiring in a couple of years so once that's finished I may start dabbling again. I don't know. It depends. There are so many good big bands around. You know, Jill Townsend and people like that have got some great big bands. And she's writing great charts.

You've still got all your charts. Dust 'em off!

(laughs) Yeah, dust 'em off. We did play after Stew passed away. We had a get-together for him at the Hot Jazz Club and I pulled some of them out. Some of the guys were smiling again to see them, they hadn't played them for so long. The last big project was for the Calgary Olympics for Tommy Banks. I wrote a huge suite for that thing.

For the senator.

Yeah, for Senator Banks! (laughs) Strange how things happen.

Back with the Cave, Isy's, the Palomar and Marco Polo, how competitive was it?

Oh, very so. Marco Polo was a little smaller than Isy's. So the pecking order was the Cave, of course. It was the big place. I think it sat around 350 or 400. It wasn't that many. I remember second shows there, the spotlight wouldn't cut through the smoke. We should all be sick and dying from just the smoke alone. It was unbelievable. Everybody smoked. Even the band, everybody smoked. It was an awful habit. Then Isy's would be next. And Isy used to bring in... Like, he brought in Oscar Peterson and he brought in Duke Ellington and Woody Hermann and Stan Getz and Dizzie Gillespie played there. So his club was big enough. Especially when Duke was there. It was packed. Duke also played the Cave, but after he played Isy's. And it would be packed every night. Woody Hermann was packed every night. And of course Oscar was. And we had Maynard Ferguson out. With Maynard, he just brought his book along and I hired the band. And nobody was there. Right in the middle of the rock'n'roll era in the '80s. He played just great. But he was travelling around just with his book and hire a local band. I remember when he heard Ian McDougall play trombone, he just about died. He looked around and said, "What's this?!" (laughs) He loved Ian's playing.

Did you get a lot of that kind of reaction with visiting name acts?

Yeah. Well, that's why they all came to the Cave, first of all. They came because the band was so good. So all the acts would break their act in here at the Cave, and then they'd go to Vegas. So they could try out all their charts and make sure they were all right and the notes were all right. We were like the first band that usually played them, other than a rehearsal band in L.A. would probably do a note check on them before they came up here. So we'd get a lot of these acts. Liza Minelli, it was her first show here. Natalie Cole, her first show was done here. Of course Mitzi Gaynor always broke her acts in here. And Tony Bennett. I think he tried a lot of new material out here, all big band stuff. Ella Fitzgerald played the Cave a few times. She always had a big band with the jazz trio. So there was lots of action in those days with the great singers in jazz going on. But that was the end of the era. After that, well, Danny Becida got all the clubs and Isy's was turned into a country & western club, I think.

Where was Isy's?

Do you know where the old Vancouver library used to be? It was down towards Stanley Park on Georgia Street. It would be about five or six blocks from Stanley Park. It was a car lot the last I drove by. I think the property's been sold probably a hundred times. I haven't been down there in so long. And Oil Can Harry's opened up just behind Isy's. And it eventually took over. Saturday night we'd be empty and I'd take Isy out the back and say, "Look at that club over there." There'd be a line-up around the block. And that was when rock'n'roll was taking over. So it happened to everybody in the business. And the Cave went under. They all just went under one at a time. No acts, that was the first thing. They had no acts to play these places anymore. They disappeared, too. They all got old and retired.

The River Rock Casino makes reference to the Cave. They're trying to emulate it, it seems, even though it's a theatre.

Yeah, they're doing the same thing as the Cave did. The same out here in Coquitlam with the Red Robinson theatre. I went out there for the opening night of that. That's the same thing they're trying to do out there and I think they're having some success. The prices are enough to knock your block off, but they're having some success. A friend of mine contracts the band for these things whenever they need a band. So it's good work for musicians again. Acoustic musicians. They're getting some work there. Bob Newhart has a band and all the band does is play him on and play him off. Then sit there and stare (laughs). But the number of acts that we did was just unbelievable, the names that we played.

Was there a highlight for you?

The Frank Sinatra show at the PNE was a highlight, as far as the commercial acts. But it's pretty hard to beat Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett.

Did you get a chance to meet Frank?

Not really, no. He always carried a rhythm section with him and a lead trumpet player. Now, Frank liked to drink a lot. Well, he liked to go on drinking sessions. And he'd always assign one of his side players to go drink with him. He didn't want to drink alone. And this time it was the trumpet player (laughs). The trumpet player was so hung over, his legs were all bandaged up and he had the gout (laughs). So when Frank came in I remember he hid in the acoustic bass case. And when Frank came in, he opened the lid and did a Dracula impersonation and scared the hell out of Frank. So we had a little laugh. Sinatra was really nice. We heard he was hard to work for. He wasn't. They were real pros. The music was real simple to play. Just good. Good charts but simple. They weren't complicated charts. They swung like mad and he was just great. He conducted the orchestra. He had good ears. I remember he found a mistake in the cello part, reminding them it should be an A-natural instead of an A-flat, that the person had played wrong. So he had some good ears. But he was really a lot of fun.

Didn't Buddy Rich have a reputation of being quite the task master?

Oh, he was awful. He played Isy's. Don Menza was in the band. And Isy had a curtain that would close. Now, one night they did a CBC show with Buddy's band. And the curtain closed and Buddy started one of his rants on the band, just tearing them to pieces, belittling them like you wouldn't believe. And Don Menza stood up with a raft of four-letter words and five-letter words and just told him, "In no uncertain terms are you going to be talking to me like that. I'm outta here." And just took off. Because he was a pro. These other guys were all like students out of university, right? But Buddy would be a real task master. Bass players used to go nuts playing with him because Buddy played straight four with that bass drum all the time and the bass players would be like, "That's hard to play with." I used to say to the bass player, "You sure you know where the beat's going to be, don't you?" He says, "You can't help it." But his bands were awful good. He was the task master but he could sure play, I tell you. Scary. But he did have his flare-ups with the band. The joke was when the bus is stuck with Buddy's band, throw another sideman under the wheels (laughs). That was the joke that used to go around. However the product was awfully good. I don't know if he bulldogged them into it or not but it was a good band.

You didn't have to be like that.

No. Are you kidding? I worked with all my friends. They knew more than I did about it.

You've seen the ups and downs in the scene here. What was the low point?

I think the transition. It's hard to take when you're trained to do one thing and then you have to retrain yourself to do something else. And you see so many of your friends not making the transition. It's not that they can't; they don't have the opportunity, first of all, because the one thing you gotta understand about pop music or jazz music is an age thing. It goes by decades. You turn around one day and there's thirty years, three decades of musicians, behind you trying to do the same thing you're doing. So every musician, regardless of how good they think they are in our day, you might have a 10-year period where you did really very well. And it might appear that you're God's gift to music, but that's really not the case. It was just your turn. And once you realize it was your turn, it changed your attitude: "Okay, it's my turn. I better do as good as I can at this."

For as long as it lasts.

For as long as it lasts. Once I realized that, in my career anyhow, it changed my attitude thinking I was God's gift to music. Sometimes an artist can be confused because of some success. To realize, well what happened to the guy before me? I had great respect for a guy named Bobby Reid, who was a trumpet player, arranger and conductor who was sensational. The guy was unbelievable he was so good. He used to write orchestrations for 60-piece orchestras. Great stuff. High-note trumpet player, great lead player, everything. Everything he had, I wanted. And all of a sudden he was doing nothing. And I said to myself, "Well, what's going on here?" That's when I figured out, "Oh, I see! I'm the new young guy. It's my turn. And he's had his turn. It's my turn." And that's exactly what happened. The young guys came up behind me and took over. And that's the way it should be. You can't have somebody hanging there forever. It just gets stale.

So you figured that out pretty early.

I did, yes. Thank goodness. Because I had some business training and I had some good ears to listen to older people suggesting what was going on and realizing it. So jazz ended up being my hobby. It was just a hobby; a very good hobby. It kept me sane. For every 15 commercial charts I'd write, I'd sit down and make myself compose an original jazz piece. I'd store it in a book and then go back later on and arrange it. And some of it was good. Some of it was no good. Just like playing solos: sometimes you play good and sometimes you play no good.

So the low point was the transition period. Where are we now? How would 2006 compare with the hayday and the lowest period?

There's a lot more really good jazz players around now. For one reason, there's lots of music schools. All these colleges have music programs and all the teachers are jazz players. I'm totally shocked by what they call repertoire now in jazz. So all the tunes that I played and that Fraser MacPherson played and Stew Barnett played, they're all tunes from that era. In our day, when a Hit Parade tune became a hit, we'd pick up the tune and go down and jam on it. We'd play jazz on it. We'd learn the tune and play jazz on it. I thought the young people would want to do that with their music; they would adapt it to jazz. But no. They're playing Stella By Starlight. They're playing these standard tunes. Where'd they learn that?! Well, they learned it at college because the guys teaching them are from my generation.

Do you think that's the right approach?

I think it's a great approach because what they've done now, they've put jazz in a space when jazz was happening. From the beginning of jazz, they've taught their repertoire. Classical music has a repertoire, right? Now jazz has a repertoire. And that's what's being taught to these young players. They all know these, what I call the old standards. And I'm always surprised that they know them because it's the last thing I'd think they'd want to learn, but that's what they do learn. And that's what they play.

The history is important.

They're taught that, as well. At some of these schools, they do teach history. So now jazz has been catalogued. In other words, art always is catalogued. Even now there are rock schools that teach you rock'n'roll. And they teach it backwards because as it goes along, it changes. Same with jazz. Now there's rules for everything. "Oh, no, with this chord progression shows up, you're in this key area..." And they make these rules up to help these young players get through in one year which [otherwise] might take them 20 years of knocking around. So the teachers make up these rules, so now to teach jazz there's a method of teaching jazz. Before there wasn't. You just went out and played sessions and hung around jazz players and listened to jazz records. Now it's all been categorized and they teach it. And that gets us some pretty good students. There are some great jazz trumpet players. There's great everything in town.

Lots of great musicians. But is there work for them?

That's always been the case. There's always been too many jazz players for the work. And you can't get work. That's always been the case. That's what I said: You have to make a decision once in a while of what area you're going to go into to survive. We had lots in the hayday, but I think there's twice as many now. And the standards are so much higher because of the way they study. Like, when I came to Vancouver, I was the exception to the rule: I had studied. None of the guys I worked with had studied. They might have taken lessons at different times of life, but they never really studied like I did. They never took composition or ear training or keyboard arranging. They never did that. They just picked it up on their own.

With the schools, do the players lack an individualistic sound?

Well, that depends what they listen to and of course who's teaching. But that takes a long time to develop. What those schools give them is a good strong basis. You'll listen to the guy twenty years from now and you'll say, "Oh, my God! What a difference!" By that time they will have developed a style. And depending on who they're listening to, like if they're listening to Chet Baker or the older players like that, they'll end up sounding a lot like that. So at this stage when you're young, you're influenced by everything and you don't know what the hell you want. So you really have to do a lot of listening, a lot of playing. 'Now you've got the basis, now go do it,' is the saying. Same thing at Westlake I studied. They'd say, "Okay, here's how you write contrapuntal, linear music. Here's how you do it. Blah blah. You set it up and do it this way." And I'd say, "Is that all there is to it?" "Yes, that's all there is to it. You'll learn later on." And sure enough, you'd apply those principles and later on, "Oh, I see what the guy was talking about!" So it's the same with playing. Your trumpet teacher says to you, "Well, you do this and you do this and you put so much pressure here and you use your diaphram for this," and he'd say, "You just keep practicing with that in mind." And if you take jazz lessons from somebody, "You use this chord progression and here's what you do." And they show you all these techniques, but it's up to you to develop them. So that's what's happening now. You hear a lot of sameness coming out of some of the younger players because they've all been taught the same basic technique and they just haven't had time yet to develop their style. And that comes from a lot of playing and a lot of time. It'll take them another ten years and they'll have a style if they stick with it. There are few players, like Brad Turner, who have a very natural ability. I used to adjudicate him in festivals when he was 13, 14. He was astounding then! Our eyes would fall out of our heads then. Occassionally you'll hear a few people like that that are really outstanding. But the majority of people that I used to play with, I think, over the years they all started to play better. We all got better at what we did. Eventually. We all thought we were great when we started (laughs) but we really weren't. The proof is when I got so-called one of the downtowners, I realized what I was told. Yeah, there's a clique here and they're professional. And they're very good. It was astounding how good they were. It used to scare me. I'd think, "Oh, boy, I gotta be on the ball here." They were all friendly and nice and had fun, but when the horns went up, look out. It was time to produce. And they were all mature. It was so much fun playing with the guys. It was night and day of what I thought I'd be doing. But the young guys, they'll improve.

Did the national radio programs like Jazz Workshop exist because the scene was so strong here, or was the scene strong because of national programs like Jazz Workshop?

I think jazz was just popular. It had a pretty good audience. CBC kept pretty good track of the audience. And when Robbie came to town, he gave it a real boot. It was doing all right, the jazz society and whatnot. And Dave Robbins came along and he had a little bit more finesse and he was a little fussier and he started to retrain the jazz groups so the quality of music improved a lot. But they still had to have an audience. They're still doing jazz programs; there just aren't so many of them, that's all. But I think the French network does more than anybody. It's a matter of budget now. It's not a matter of who wants to do it, it's just a matter of budget. Because the CBC, you can shoot a bullet down there and it won't hit anybody. Unfortunately, that's a crime, but they still support some jazz. And thank goodness. And all the younger players, like Campbell Ryga and guys like that that are coming up, they're doing a little bit of jazz work and they seem to be busy, these guys, doing their jazz work. But they move around a lot now. Like they'll play Edmonton and Calgary and Toronto and Winnipeg. They move around a bit now. There's a scene where you can actually travel and play some jazz clubs.

And everyone has a CD out now.

Yeah, that's the rock'n'roll influence. That's like instead of the business card now, you have a CD. Because you can do it in your basement. And you get a bunch of friends together and have a jam session and record it and put out a CD. It's a great thing but there's just so much of it now that to sell it is next to impossible because there's so much of it around. You can put up a website and you can market it that way. That's what all these young pop musicians are doing. They don't even care to get paid. They just want to sell product, the young rock musicians. That's their attitude. They don't care about anything. They don't care about unions, they don't care about associations, they don't care about insurance, they don't care about any benefits, pensions or nothing. They just want to sell product. So they'll go into a club and play for free and if they get 25 bucks for the whole band, that's a lot of money. And they'll invite all their friends down and their relatives and they'll drink booze all night and they'll sell CDs. And on their website it'll show how many CDs they've sold. Now record companies will pick up these websites. They say, "Oh! Here's a band that's sold 5000 CDs. Let's have a look at them." And if they think they've got anything happening, they'll book 'em. Because it costs a million dollars now to do a CD and market it and sell it. It's embarrassing. But of all the trading going on and the way the internet works, musicians are losing millions and millions of dollars in the pop field. Of course, the jazz field doesn't count. What's jazz? One-tenth of one percent of the record sales? And we're still locally fighting the big names, Wynton Marsalis and people like that. Which has always been the case. But the quality of jazz on some of these CDs is astounding. You know, recordings don't lie. If you're a bad player, it's going to show up and if you're a good player, it's going to show up. And the CDs I've heard in jazz, I've heard a couple that are a little questionable but the majority of them are, to me, just world-class. They really are classy. So there's some pretty good product out there. A lot more than in my day. I put out a jazz album, One of My Bags, and that was unheard of that the CBC didn't do it and I did it on my own. Mind you, the guys all worked that gig for free. And the association let it go. That was 1976. And I did buy and pay for a commercial album years later that cost me a fortune and I didn't sell one. That was a dance band album. Pat Hervey sang on the album. It was the same jazz band but it was more commercial. And it cost a fortune and didn't sell any, which is okay. That's part of the gig (laughs). I had no marketing in that area. But as I said, to do a jazz album on your own was unheard of. I only got a thousand printed but I did sell them all because a gentleman down in Seattle had a record club all over the world. He took a lot of them. And I used to get these letters from all over the world, places I'd never heard of, saying, "When's your next jazz album coming out?" I'd be, "How'd they find that out?!" (laughs)

You need to release it on CD.

Yeah, that I might do. I've been talking with Rick Kilburn and several people about doing it. They've got all these things about, "I need the original. I have to bake it." Because it was all done on tape and it's been sitting there for years. And I think, "Well, can't you just take it off the LP?" It's in LP form, of course. "Can't you take it off that?" "Well, yeah, I guess we could." But of all the techniques they've got, it wouldn't take much to get it on CD, but believe it or not, the CD, the rumour is, they're going to be becoming passé pretty soon, too, with the new technology. So that's another thing that happens. Yamaha and these people own the business now and we can't keep up with it. That's why good old-fashioned horn players, trumpet players, saxophone players, bone players, rhythm players, they're so good out there that maybe it'll come around again and they'll be fresh again. A lot of these young rock bands are live. They play on their CDs. Regardless of what the quality is, they still play. And they're not too much into the electronics. They're more into acoustic stuff. But film scores and all that work is really tough to come by these days unless you've got a computer.

Oliver Gannon's got Band in a Box.

That's right. And you know how successful that is. I remember when that came out, when I first got it I couldn't believe it. I used to practice to it. I didn't know it was on a loop. It never stopped so I'd get wiped out (laughs). I'd say, "Why am I getting tired?" I've been playing here for ten minutes without taking the horn off my face. It's a great program. I haven't heard the latest. I haven't been keeping up with the latest with that stuff.

Who was your trumpet hero?

Believe it or not, one of my favourite trumpet players is Guido Basso. And flugel horn player. I don't try to emulate him at all. I was a Miles fan for years, unfortunately. And Chet Baker fan first of all. He was my first favourite, Chet Baker. But when I got back into Canada and started hearing the Boss Brass and going to Toronto a few times when I was adjudicating festivals, I'd stop and hear the Boss Brass and I'd hear Guido Basso and I'd just melt. This guy plays with such a warm feeling. He plays the trumpet; it doesn't play him. And plays the flugelhorn the same way. As a matter of fact, when Dave Bird was producing at CBC – he was a former piano player and played at the Marco Polo for a while. He ended up being producer of Jazz Radio Canada – he brought Guido Basso out here. He played with my big band when we did a concert at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. He was a great producer. His headquarters were in Winnipeg at the time. And his wife was the emcee of the show.

Mary Nelson.

Yeah, Mary Nelson. She was a great lady. Anyhow, he brought Guido Basso out and Moe Koffman. And I remember I wrote this really difficult piece. I don't know what got into me. My band has tried to play it and still can't play it. But we played it at that time. The progressions were all really weird. They were A-minor-13s or C-major-7-flat-5 chords. I remember Moe, who was very meticulous in everything he did, Rob McConnell would say, "No matter where we go, wherever we travel in the world, you can walk down the hallway and you'll hear Moe Koffman practicing. The other guys are out having a party time; he's practicing." So Moe was really worried about his part. And Guido just saw to it like he was eating candy. I said to Guido, "Does nothing stop you?" He says, "Oh, no, they're sort of different changes, but I got the idea." He played it the first time, it sounded like he'd played it 50 times. The guy just had this command of the instrument. It just flew out of the horn, just fluid. He ended up being what I consider my favourite. Chet Baker was the first one I really fell in love with. Unfortunately I tried to emulate his sound and it cost me some chop trouble for a long time because he had no chops. He wasn't a chop player. He had a very minimal range. So when I went to study with a good teacher in L.A. I had to do some changing in the embouchure. And of course, I liked Miles. I liked the So What era of Miles. The electronic stuff he did later on and got so much recognition for I didn't like at all. He played the same but with a contemporary rhythm section. He didn't play anything any different. But he was a great player. A great influence, there's no doubt about that. He played a coffee house in town here one night. He had a drummer with him that was so loud, he was louder than ten drummers. And Miles had a harmon mute in and he played with his back to the audience. That's what I said, "He's a real performer." (laughs) He's the one that killed the fun in jazz. You see that and you sort of go, "Oh, man, what a drag. What a disappointment." Because the guy was a really good player. But I listen to Miles and Chet Baker now and as nice as they are, I still think Guido Basso, for my money.

Do you still listen to a lot of music?

Yeah, as much as I can. Not a lot. I've got the TV, the black box here, and it's got some free jazz stations on it so I'll punch it up sometimes. I was listening to some Paul Desmond the other day. I forgot how good he was. You forget because you don't hear them played anymore. They're not the flavour of the month. Jazz has its pop Hit Parade, too, and rightly so. You've got to have new players. The new players, I think they're really good.

Chris Gage is legendary now almost. At the time did people realize how good he was?

Oh, yeah. Especially the acts that used to come into the Cave when he had the band there. Every one of them wanted him to go on the road with them. "Come on, Chris!" And he'd say, "Nah, nah." He was a great accompanist. One of the best accompanists in the world. He could anticipate anything. Chris was a great jazz player, too. A very understated jazz player. I can remember a story once. Dave Robbins had a commercial show. He had strings and everything. And Chris was playing it. Now Dave, for some reason, decided to write this piano part out, every note. The pages were just black with notes. Chris looked at it and he had it open for the first bit. I was on the show and I went over and saw the part and said, "What is this?" And when Dave wasn't looking, he folded the part up and didn't even play it (laughs). He played it by ear. And I remember Don Thompson, the piano player and bass player, discovered prior to Chris's untimely death what a good piano player he was. He phoned me up and says, "I just was playing with Chris Gage. My God, can he ever play!" Because Don didn't like the downtowners, right?

And Chris was a downtowner.

Oh, yeah. He was a downtowner. Chris had the trio with Jimmie Wightman on drums and Stan Johnson on bass. So they'd go to do a radio show, right? Chris would walk in with all these sheets of music under his arm and put them up like that. And they'd have Eleanor Collins singing and rehearse all the tunes then do the show live. Then after the show they'd say to Chris, "Hey, Chris, great charts." "Oh, thank you." He never wrote a note (laughs). They were just blank pages. He had the greatest sense of humour. I remember we used to get invited to all these ritzy places after the Cave some nights by these West Vancouver millionaires. One night Chris took all the guy's silverware and put it in the trunk of his car (laughs). And drove home. It was just a joke. The guy forgave him. He'd phone him and say, "Someone put all your silverware in the back of my car. I don't know who. Who would do that?" The guy said, "Gee, I don't know. Could you bring it back?" "Okay, I'll bring it right over." He was a great jokester. He used to send you junk mail. He'd get on your case and all of a sudden you'd be getting all this junk mail: How to snorkle in the Bahamas and stuff. "Where's this coming from?" He put your name and address in and you'd get junk mail. He always had something going. He was a lot of fun to work with. A very quiet guy. He never said too much but he always had some gag going of some kind. But yeah, a great piano player.

It must have been a shock when he died.

Well, yeah, especially how he died. That was the problem because they assumed that he took his own life. At least that's what the prognosis was. He had problems with his wife and whatnot. It was so unfortunate. It was a shock to everybody, it really was. Because he was at the height of his career. He could have worked with anybody in North America he was in such a demand and was such a good player. But things like that happen. It makes you stop and wonder, but you just have to keep going on.

Was there a big hole in the scene after that?

Yeah, there was a big hole. A lot of the guys couldn't figure it out. Like before he seemed fine. They worked with him and everything was normal. Although I did talk to one young lady who said she knew him and she'd talked to him on the phone and he was pretty depressed. That's all she said. And that she didn't realize that he was going to do what he supposedly did when he took his own life. She didn't realize that but she said he was really down. I didn't know Chris really well. I worked with him a lot because Dave Robbins hired him. So we worked the jazz shows together. I remember when I was 16 years old in Chilliwack, I hitchhiked into town to hear the Chris Gage trio. I was flat broke and I had to lie to get into the club. It was a private club supposedly. It was called the Arctic Club. So I walk in and I just heard about eight bars of a tune and they took a break. So I said to the bartender, "I want to buy the band a drink. But bring them all to my table here so I can get a chance to talk to them." Because I'd heard all about this Chris Gage and this trio. In those days when the club was full, they'd tell the band, "Take a break. Don't play. We want them to drink." So it's a long break and the drinks sat there and sat there. And finally they came over and Cuddles [Stan Johnson] said to me, "Oh hi, you got a drink for us?" And he picked up the drink and went slosh, slosh, slosh. Three drinks. "Hey, thanks, man, we'll see you." And took off! Well, when I came back to Vancouver from Westlake, I got this TV show with five trumpets and a rhythm section, with Don Thompson on vibes, and I had Chris Gage and Cuddles. And I had George Ursan; I didn't have Jimmie on drums. Anyhow, so I went up and told Cuddles and Chris this story. I said, "You know, I bought you a drink a long time ago and you were absolutely the rudest. Now I'm the leader. Now I get even." They looked at me and said, "When?" "You wouldn't remember. You guys were riding so high in those days, you had the whole town wrapped up in your little finger." "Gee, I'm sorry," Chris says. He was serious (laughs). He says, "I'm sorry, man, I didn't know." Anyhow, I says, "You're forgiven." It was funny how that worked out.

You didn't hold a grudge.

No, no, no. You couldn't because they were just good guys. They were just being musicians: "Who's this little jerk buying us a drink?... Good-bye, we gotta go back to work." I think I heard eight bars, that's it. They didn't play. I finally left because I had to hitchhike back to Chilliwack.

How good or big do you think he would have become had he lived?

As big as Canada would let him be, which isn't very big. Look at Oscar Peterson, he had to leave, too. But Chris wouldn't leave. If he'd gone to L.A. or something with one of these big major acts, he would have had some recognition down there for sure. I think he probably could have done some jazz recordings because jazz was very popular. Because he had the chops to do it. He would have got with some of these name players down there and he would have done very well. That's what you had to do. If you played Vegas in those days, well, you were somebody. That was the formula. You come up to Vancouver, you play in Vegas, and then you'd get a recording. That was the format. Vegas was that powerful in those days. Everybody thought if you're there you must be a superstar. No doubt the people that were asking him to go on the road with him were very well known in the industry. If he'd gone to L.A. or something, he probably would have got a lot of studio work right away. He was a good reader. He might have got into the film thing.

Even though he didn't write arrangements and just brought in blank sheets, he was a good reader.

Ha! I never heard any arrangements he ever wrote. I don't know if he ever did or not. But I think he went as far as he could go in Vancouver. He might have done better in Toronto financially. Because a guy of his calibre, you walk into town and you're in demand, like, right now. You don't have to wait. His reputation preceded him. He wasn't that well known in the States. So I think he would have done very well. He would have really done well.

Oscar left, but he always had a home in Canada.

He left because he had a smart manager who knew that Canada might have been a nice place to live but to make a living, you've got to travel the world.

And he even spoke highly of Chris Gage.

Oh, yeah, sure. Chris was so well known, he was so established. And once again, I think, a self-taught guy. He never talked of music to you. Like, we'd always chat, like, "Oh, did you hear so-and-so play this record and blah blah?" Chris never talked. He'd just sort of sit there and smile. He'd make a few comments about a chart or something, but he never got into the "Oh boy, this is the greatest, or that's the greatest or I think this is the best". He never was opinionated that way. He just played. And it was rather refreshing in some ways that he didn't have to know the flavour of the month. He really didn't care about who it was. He just played his way and when you were on the gig, this is what you expect of Chris Gage playing. So he was rather unprententious, I guess you might say.

Now that you're president of the union...

It's an association, by the way; it's not a union. You can't be a union in Canada. If you're all plumbers, you can be a union. But when you're like we are with a big mixture of guys that work day jobs and play trumpet or a saxophone player.... The majority of our members are freelance people. We can be a union in the case of the Vancouver Symphony because we have a collective agreement. If they can identify one group of people.... The symphony people are identified and recognized, but Jack Stafford and the jazz guys, they're all freelance players. They can be association members. They have the same privileges and protection as a union guy has except your union guy has a contract. So we're an association.

Did it used to be called a union?

For a long time, yeah. It was called a musicians union.

When did it change?

When the laws in the country changed which spelled out what a union is. So if I've got 250 plumbers together, we can be a union because we're all plumbers. But you can't be a plumber and a saxophone player and belong to a union. They don't recognize that as a body. But the symphony is one group that negotiates a contract with the symphony society.

Because there's one employer?

That's right, one employer. But your freelance musician works everywhere. You work all over the place. So we have to call ourselves an association.

I see. I didn't know that.

Most people don't. I didn't for years, either.

So when did the law change?

Oh, God, I don't know when it was. It was quite a while ago. It's got to be 25 years ago. The association's 105 years old. It's been around longer than sliced bread.

How long is a term for you?

It's two-year terms but now they've changed it to three-year terms. So this is the first three-year term. They changed the elections to every three years because two was too close together.

How long have you been president?

This is my eleventh year. Funny how fun flies. I mean time flies! (laughs) But it's got nothing to do with music, the job. It's strictly the business of music. It's not what you know musically or how good you were at what you did. That's all past tense. People know what I've done but that has nothing to do with the job.

Do you dabble in music apart from the job?

I don't do very much. The biggest problem with being a musician is that I have played at the top of the game in town here. So for me to get back in shape again would take me at least two years practicing three hours a day to get in the shape that I consider a shape. And then the biggest problem is there's nowhere to play. There's Jack Fulton's rehearsal band, the Wow! band, and that's it. And there's usually a line-up of trumpet players there a mile long waiting to play so you might get to play one chart.

I'm sure they'd let you in.

Yeah, if I could play. I'd have to get my chops together. And the thing that I used to do has gone away. My saying is always, "You don't quit the music business; it quits you." It's just an age thing. It's also you think back to when you were in shape and how good you played and who you played with, and your standards are a little bit higher than maybe someone who's just beginning. And if you can't play up to that standard, you don't want to go back in and sound like a, "Oh, look at that poor old guy. I guess he must have been good some time." I used to play with those type of guys (laughs). I don't want to hear that.

You could still get out your pen and write some charts.

Oh, yeah. I might do that. I might do that.

But you haven't been.

No, I haven't done it for quite a while. Every so often I'll get an idea. I'll go down to my basement and pound on the piano and write down a few notes and then say, "Nah, I don't have time for this." It is very time absorbing.

Do you play the piano?

No, I don't. I use it for arranging purposes but I don't play it. I just peck away at it, sort of nervously. I've always used it for arranging purposes and composing purposes. But then who knows? When I'm finished I might try again. But then again, as I say, it's a problem trying to find some place to work. There's no place you can work. So it's like making buggy whips.

You can take over from Dal at the PNE.

(laughs) I think I've had enough of that. Eighteen hours a day for five years over seventeen days is enough for me. I don't know if I want to get back into the dance band business or not. It's hard to say. But in any case, it's been a very interesting career and I've been very lucky. As I said, there's nothing that I haven't done. Anything I wanted to do, I've done. As my trumpet teacher used to say, shoot really high because you might overshoot your dreams. Dream big enough. He made me write a letter once to him telling him exactly what I wanted to do in the business. So I said, "Well, I want to play with Stan Kenton..." And I had a bunch of other things in there of what I wanted to do. And he read it back to me and says, "That's terrible." I said, "What do you mean?" He says, "Well, that's not high enough. Your goals are too low. Write another one." So I made up another one. I said I want to compose music for films, I want to conduct shows. And he says, "Well, that's getting better." And sure enough when I came back to Vancouver within five years I'd done pretty near the whole letter. I'd done everything I wanted to do.

Nice career.

Well, as I said, at that time you could do it. It was there to do. You had to produce and you had to get things done on time and you had to be very business-like, you had to be very straight. Like everybody else was.

You had to be a professional.

That's right.

You had to be a downtowner.

That's right, I had to be one of the downtowners in the clique (laughs). But it worked out great. And it worked out great for everybody I worked with. And everybody at one time or another was a leader. Fraser was a leader for a long time at the Cave, Dave Robbins was a leader for a long time, and then when I was leader Fraser worked for me, I worked for him. We respected each other. If you had the gig, I'd come and work for you and I'd work just as hard as when I had the gigs.


Comments?