Tom Keenlyside
interview by Cory Weeds
December 2007

Tom Keenlyside’s musical career has spanned four decades, featuring performances and recordings throughout North America and Europe. His saxophone and flute playing have been featured with a wide variety of groups at many major festivals, including the Newport Jazz Festival, the Montreal International Jazz Festival, and the Montreux Detroit Jazz Festival. He has performed with many of the biggest names in the music business: Diana Krall, Harry Connick Jr., Natalie Cole, Dizzy Gillespie, Mel Torme and Tom Jones. In November 2006, Tom was inducted into the B.C. Entertainment Hall of Fame. 

Cory: Tom, lets start right at the beginning with a brief background about your childhood and how you got into this music we love called jazz.

Tom: Back in the fifties, when I was a kid, radio was really eclectic. It had a big effect on me. We had an old Bakelite tube radio in the kitchen which was on pretty well constantly, always tuned to CKNW, "Top Dog" radio. One minute you’d be listening to, say, Jimmy Cleveland playing jazz on the trombone, and the next minute Marty Robbins singing White Sport Coat, or melodically-rich tunes like Chanson D’Amour or The Wayward Wind. I remember locking into these melodies as well as Broadway musicals like The King and I or My Fair Lady, all the melodies and lyrics of which I knew by heart by age seven or so.

My best friend Jim (he’s still a great pal of mine) lived across the street and his big sister Judy would buy all the latest 45s, so the hits of Buddy Holly, Elvis, The Ventures and Santo and Johnny would kind of waft out of the window of her room. Even then I knew I was right at the edge of the invention of Rock and Roll, and that also had a large musical impact on me…I’m really grateful for that.

Was there on defining moment so to speak that really turned your ears on to jazz?

Yes there was. The real defining moment for me was in the winter of 1963. I would walk to school and on the way stop by my pal Tony Gould’s house (he’s actually Glenn Gould’s first cousin) and we would walk together. His mom answered the door . . . she happened to be listening to Strange Meadowlark by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. When Paul Desmond started playing his solo, I was kind of galvanized on the spot. I remember thinking "that’s the most perfect thing I’ve ever heard" and decided right there and then that I was going to try to do that for a living. No one was around to tell me I was crazy, and I’ve never actually thought twice about my decision since.

So is that when you started playing saxophone, then?

I didn’t actually start on the saxophone until third year university, but I already had a lot of the fingering down because I was a flute major and the keywork is very similar between the two. I think I was playing gigs on it two weeks after taking it up.

So what was your first instrument?

I started playing the trumpet in 1962 at age 12, and I played it for the next 10 years. When I was 15, I took up the flute just because it appealed to me, and started lessons with Don Dorazio, or "Tico" as he was known. He was a truly great guy and got me going on classical technique and tone production.

When did you start playing professional gigs? What was going on around town in those days musically? Like clubs, jams etc.

I started playing gigs in 1964 and I already knew hundreds of tunes that I could easily play by ear. Sometimes I’d forget the bridge to a tune, so I’d just make something up . . . I’m glad nobody was paying attention. I played almost every weekend with accordion players at the Legion and various beer parlors around town like the Royal and the Waldorf, and played the hits of the day, many of which are now standards, like The Days of Wine and Roses or The Girl from Ipanema. My parents were very supportive, and my dad suggested that I go to music school at UBC, which I did. I played gigs all through that time, many of them downtown at the Smiling Buddha or the Kit Kat Club with entertainers and strippers. We played whatever we wanted, and would basically ignore the strippers complaints that they couldn’t dance to Impressions or So What. .The customers couldn’t care less . . . they had a totally different agenda. It was a great place to learn, and to hear guys play who were much better than me doing their thing. I also would go to after hours joints like The Espresso and The Jazz Alley (formerly the Cellar at Watson and Broadway) and sit in. Sometimes it was kind of mediocre, and sometimes it was sensational, like when Terry Clarke and Don Thompson would play, or when John Dawe, the great trumpet player, would play with Rocky Weems. I even played 2 choruses of blues with Philly Joe Jones one night at the Espresso. I still couldn’t play that well and it scared the crap out of me.

Wow, Philly Joe Jones? Did he totally vibe you out or was he cool?

I used to sneak out of my bedroom window when I was 15 and hitchhike downtown to hang out and sit in at various clubs and coffee joints. One of those nights Philly Joe Jones came into the Espresso after playing some show at the Cave, which was only a block away. Someone convinced him to sit in on a blues, which he did. He seemed kind of grumpy, but he had a good reason to be. The drum kit was terrible, the bass player was stoned and had bad time anyway, and of course, there was me, a skinny Canadian high school kid who couldn’t really play much of anything. Did I mention that I was terrified? But I got through the tune, which I think was Bags Groove. He just sort of played the tune and disappeared.

There was certainly more going on in those days with major jazz stars coming to Vancouver and playing jazz clubs rather than big concert halls. Who were some of the other guys that you got to play with?

Until about 1975 or so I was more of a "band" guy, so I didn’t really have an opportunity to play with jazz guys from out of town. I played most of my gigs with a set group, like "Sunshyne", a progressive rock band I played in for six years, or a few R&B groups in the sixties. I was totally into jazz as well, and played and jammed with great Vancouver guys all the time. I also was fortunate enough to see many hugely important players live in the clubs you’re talking about, like Cannonball, Dexter, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Lockjaw Davis, Harold Land, Roland Kirk, Sonny Rollins and many others.

After I started freelancing in the late seventies, I had the chance to play with all sorts of people like Dizzy Gillespie, Mel Torme and Natalie Cole, usually in concert-type settings. I also got to back some pretty interesting people when I played lead alto with Don Costa’s band or when I was in the house band for the Tom Jones TV series. Most of those, with the exception of, say, Peggy Lee, were more show-biz types like Andy Williams or huge pop stars like Chaka Kahn.

Okay, Tom, I was going to wait till later to ask you this but I think it's a good time. You were into a bit of promoting, etc., as well as playing. I remember one night at The Cellar you overheard me telling a story about Chet Baker being up here. At the time I had no idea that you were directly involved in that story and you came over and gave it to me from the horse's mouth so to speak. Tell that story — it's a classic!

Oh yeah, that. My wife, Nicky-Lea Keenlyside, and Suzanne Worst had an agency in the early eighties that booked jazz acts to Vancouver. Chet Baker was one of them, and came to town for a three-nighter at the old Hot Jazz Club when it was on Broadway. Rene Worst, Graham Boyle and Ted Quinlan were the rhythm section on that date. After hanging out with Chet for a few hours, it came out that he was an avid table tennis player, after learning how to play while incarcerated in the federal pen. At the time Rene, Graham and I were really into it as well, and played until all hours in a room in my basement that was set up specifically for ping-pong. Chet came over after the second night’s gig eager to play. We set up for doubles, with Graham and me on one team versus Rene and Chet opposing. We played a few points, and Chet was pretty good, not a bad backhand, as I recall. We had a particularly extended rally on one point, and Graham decided he was going to finish Chet off with a vicious spin, which came off the racquet like it was doing a U turn. Chet lunged for the ball, which was basically un-hittable, and plowed his head face first into my rec room wall. He stayed stuck there for a couple of seconds, and then kind of slid to the floor, all the time glued to the wall with his face. He was out cold. We were stone silent with shock, and I remember Graham Boyle saying, "Oh my God, we’ve killed Chet Baker." After about twenty seconds or so, though, Chet came to, and we went upstairs and made him a cup of tea. He had a big knot in his forehead, and his glasses were toast. He was OK about it though, and commented that it would be ironic that after all he had been through that he would overdose on ping-pong.

That is such a great story. A great anecdote of Vancouver jazz history!

You have had many successes over your illustrious career and I want to touch on a few of them. I first want to talk to you about "Skywalk", which — correct if I'm wrong — was one of the most successful groups that you have ever been involved in. Talk a little about the formation of that group and the musical vision behind it. Do you think it caused people to pigeonhole you as a more contemporary saxophonist?

Graeme Coleman started Skywalk in 1979 with bassist Rene Worst. It was a continuation of a band that played at Gary Taylor’s Show Lounge. I was in on the act about three weeks after they had decided to get something going, so I guess I qualify as an original member. The original intent was to play harmonically interesting music with a pop edge, like Weather Report had started to do, but feature original tunes from the band, which at that time were mostly from Graeme. His tunes are fantastic, always interesting and quirky in a great way. From the first gigs we started to do, like at the Classical Joint, we knew we were on to something. The audiences were always wildly enthusiastic. The CBC arranged for us to go to the Detroit-Montreux Jazz Festival, where we double billed with Oscar Peterson. Shortly after that gig, we went into the studio and recorded Silent Witness, which basically started a very long run of gigs and US touring. I think the tunes Silent Witness and First Snow by Graeme Coleman are two of the finest jazz-fusion pieces ever written, and exemplify that genre of music. Radio stations on both US coasts started playing our material heavily, and it was pretty clear to us that we were actually influential to others in the same style. I believe that The Yellowjackets were a product of this influence, as we were getting much airplay in the LA area, and Russ Ferrante hadn’t formed the band yet. I talked to him one time at Dontes, and he confirmed that he listened to Skywalk and really dug the band’s direction.

Skywalk’s music is very big music. Unlike most other jazz-fusion bands at the time, or since, for that matter. We had a combination of memorable melodies, interesting chord changes, and hard-assed soloing, à la Harris Van Berkel. One of the band bits at the time was an announcer saying "Harris Van Berkel . . . faces ripped nightly". After Graeme quit to pursue commercial writing, Miles Black and Don Powrie joined the band and we put out some more albums, mostly in the same direction, but jazzier. Miles told me early on that he used to listen to Skywalk on the radio when he was a teenager and always hoped to be in the band!

Your question about me being pigeonholed as a contemporary saxophonist is a good one. I have no problem being categorized like that, as long as it doesn’t mean sellout, or anything of that nature. I’ve had an unbelievable run being a commercial musician, and I’m glad I can incorporate the things I’ve learned from the blues, pop and rock guys I’ve had the pleasure to play with over the years. I understand and play the jazz language, and spent years ripping off Dexter and Cannonball and working through Giant Steps like everyone else.

Your "run" as a commercial musician has also seen you work with some of the top rock bands of the day. I remember when I was growing up and getting into the saxophone you were one of the first people that I checked out. At the same time I was a big rock fan and to see your name on the back of an Aerosmith album was so cool. Was it the Margarita Horns? I can't remember. Talk about some of your work with those rock bands. Stephen Tyler, etc.

I started in the pop world early on, and was in a band with Bruce Fairbairn who, by the way, was a great trumpet player. He ended up becoming a seriously big-time rock producer after the albums by Loverboy and Slippery When Wet by Bon Jovi went really huge. I did most of the horn section arranging for his projects, and wrote and played on three Aerosmith albums, and many others, like David Lee Roth, Mötley Crüe, Bon Jovi, Van Halen and Yes. Some of this was under the name of the Margarita Horns, which was a concocted name by Bruce, but was just me and the regular crew of fantastic Vancouver horn guys like Henry Christian, Derry Byrne, Ross Gregory and the like. During this time, say mid-eighties, I worked a bunch for Bob Rock as well, who is also a major player in the rock world, and a great guy.

Did any of this work result in any touring, or was it strictly recording sessions?

Yes! I did a bunch of touring as a freelance sax player/keyboard player with Bachman-Turner Overdrive through Bruce Allen’s office, and double-billed huge concerts at the time, with bands like Alice Cooper, Foghat, Styx, and Blue Oyster Cult, which was kind of fun. Sometimes we’d play for 30,000 people, all kids screaming and freaking out. One time we double–billed in Chicago with Alvin Lee, and I remember coming to the venue for the sound check, something like GM Place, and seeing maybe 30 or 40 ambulances lined up in the front entrance. I asked one of the drivers, who was just hanging around smoking a cigarette, what was going on? He said, "We’re just getting a head start, because every time Alvin Lee plays here half the kids in the place overdose and we’ll just do the normal circuit to the hospital and back". It was like the overdosing was part of the ticket price. It turned out the guy was completely correct; all these crazed teenagers falling down and getting carted off. I’ve got so many stories from these tours that I’ll probably have to write some kind of book on this subject alone.

I know you actually got to hang out with some of these really famous musicians. Can you talk about that?

One of the bonuses during this period of my life was hanging with guys like Stephen Tyler, who I got to know quite well. He’s a very creative guy and knows exactly what he wants. I think he’s a heavy musician in his field, and has the same kind of integrity as an advanced jazz player, even though he doesn’t read music or anything like that. I have a great respect for his musical ideas and artistic vision. The other guys in the Aerosmith band are great players in their bag, and interplay just like jazz players, except at 120 decibels. Some of the other acts I’ve recorded with can’t make the same claim — iffy time and dicey chops — which are usually dealt with in Pro Tools.

I’ve met and hung out with lots of players in this milieu. I spent an afternoon drinking beer with Eddie and Alex Van Halen. Those guys are fantastic musicians. Their father was a big band sax player in Holland who played all the shows, doubling on flute and clarinet and freelancing so, needless to say, I related. Eddie’s a great guy and funny, as well. I recorded a track with him up at Bryan Adams’ house, and accidentally barged right into the studio while he was recording a ripping solo. He abruptly stopped and came over to shake my hand. When I apologized for wrecking his take, he said, "Don’t worry, man, I’ve got a million of them. Want a beer?"

Like I say, there are so many great tales from my time in the rock and roll world that I’ll have to write them down someday.

Well Tom if you do in fact write that book I will be your first sale. I would love to read that!

I want to talk more about some jazz things but before we do I would be remiss not to bring up another area of your career that has borne fruitful results. You have written a lot and continue to write a lot of music for cartoons. A lot of people think that cartoons and music aren’t related; they think its just any old music set behind a cartoon. As I’m sure you can attest, its not that at all. Talk about how you got into writing music for cartoons, and about the process.

I started writing commercial music in the mid-eighties. I had played so many studio sessions that I was closely connected to the jingle houses at the time, and I was pretty sure I was up to the task. After writing the music for hundreds of ad spots I felt I could handle anything in that realm. A close friend of mine that I’d played lots of gigs with, John Mitchell, came to me and asked if I was interested in collaborating on a cartoon show titled Spiff and Hercules for a French producer.

Being raised on cartoons à la Bugs Bunny and Woody Woodpecker, I was all over the idea and we both took to it like a dirty shirt. That was in 1990 and since then we’ve written the music for all sorts of things including feature films. We also have about 20 cartoon series playing on the air right now for which we’ve written the music.

Anybody who has seen the great Warner Brothers cartoons should know how incredible the music is. Carl Stalling wrote, scored, and conducted for that fantastic orchestra basically in a shed on the Warner Brothers lot. Unlike a lot of current day cartoons which are not scored to the picture and rely on overdone sound effects, the Warner pieces used the orchestra to emulate falling down stairs and the like. I remember one cartoon where Bugs blows up Yosemite Sam’s house, and as it’s flying off into space the music score launches into Stairway to the Stars. Those cartoons are American masterpieces.

Recently we scored an animated series called Capertown Cops which was very similar in intent to the Stalling approach. It was a blast to do and is a very funny piece of work. We laughed our heads off during the whole project.

Is there any correlation between writing cartoon music and playing jazz?

Cartoon (music) writing is actually a lot like playing jazz. The writing process is basically improvised in the same way, and since you’re always under a deadline you always end up using the first idea that pops out of your mind. You write to the picture, which is provided to you, presently often as a QuickTime movie. The scene you’re working on almost always has a tempo or pace that suggests a musical style and metronome marking. As the melodic fragment gets fleshed out with orchestration the whole idea develops along with the picture, basically the way a good jazz solo works. I’ve loved the work and plan on continuing it.

You mention that writing music for cartoons is a lot like playing jazz, but have you found that working in the cartoon genre, if you will, has had any influence on your actual playing?  I guess to be more specific is that in cartoon music there is a lot of fun and humour and you're really forced to use music to express the emotion of what’s going on.

Writing music in general has had quite an influence on my playing. Scoring music to picture has helped me focus in on phrase lengths and emotional weight. My favourite scores usually are the least dense, and when I play jazz I have to watch that I don’t overplay, which can be my tendency. Cartoons in particular probably haven’t contributed any insanity to my playing that I didn’t already have, but I will say that I probably play freer than I have in the past.

There has been somewhat of a revival on the Vancouver jazz scene the last 4 or 5 years. Tons of great musicians, projects and recording going on.  Talk a little bit about what you have seen change over the last decade on the scene here.

I think there are some great things going on in Vancouver, jazzwise. Obviously, the Cellar has a lot to do with the emergence of some excellent recordings and has offered an ongoing place for players of all sorts to express themselves. The caliber of musicianship in Vancouver has always been high, and you’re right; there are tons of great players, both established and coming up, that continually breathe new life into the music.

To answer the last half of your question, I think I’d want to go back a little further than ten years. I wouldn’t call the Vancouver jazz scene vibrant in the sense that aside from the Cellar where the music is front and centre, most of the jazz playing is done in restaurants, which can be fine but is by its very nature inhibited. I remember that back in the sixties there were several clubs where people played, like the Jazz Alley, the original Cellar, The Espresso, the Camelot Club, the Flat Five and the Blue Note. The difference was that nobody really expected to make any kind of money at it back then. As a consequence, you sort of took what you got as far as a band went, sometimes good, sometimes not so good. I think now that the expectations of the players are much higher, which is good for everybody even though there may not be as many jazz venues other than restaurants.

I’ve talked to a lot of players about why they elect to live in Vancouver rather than go to Toronto or elsewhere and the answer seems to be the same, and one that I personally agree with. Even though it sometimes seems that jazz is kind of an add-on in the restaurant business and that there aren’t lots of dedicated clubs to play, the positive lifestyle aspects of Vancouver keep us here. I know that those who left and live elsewhere still lament they aren’t able to ski or play golf in February.

You decided to start your own label AJR Records.  Talk about that process, what’s involved, and why you did it. 

AJR stands for Artist Jazz Recordings, which is, as you say, our new record label. After recording and playing other people's music for many years, I just felt it was about time in my life to get back to doing what I started out to do. I didn’t want to be remembered exclusively for the commercial music I’ve written, like "Oh that was the guy who wrote the music for Billy the Cat". Miles Black has been very important in the process, writing and playing incredibly, as has been Bob Murphy, who wrote and led a brilliant quartet outing. We’ve got four titles on our label, of which I’m extremely proud. I’m especially pleased with the fact that I play a lot of flute on these albums, which I consider a feature instrument of mine. We’ve been thrilled with the playing and artistic contributions of the players, like Miles, Bob, Bernie Arai, Miles Hill, Buff Allen, Doug Stephenson, Melody Diachun, and many others.

Fortunately, I’ve got all the recording gear I need and a terrific studio, including a Steinway B grand piano, to capture all of the music. Bob Murphy helped me pick out the piano, and it’s a beauty. My wife Nicki-Lea is very involved and wonderfully creative in the practical end of things, including having a finely tuned ear for the music. I plan on recording many more albums with different line-ups, all featuring the fantastic players we have in Vancouver. I’ve also made recordings apart from AJR, like with Bill Coon and Jennifer Scott. All our albums have been listed on CD Baby, and are available through Festival Records, and have gotten great reviews from people like Lee Konitz and Paul Horn.

The next phase is actually getting the product known in the jazz world, which is an ongoing commitment. I’d like to tour some of the things I record, possibly over in Europe as well as Canada and the USA.

Before we finish off, can you give the readers some insight as to what’s coming up for you playing/recording-wise that you’re excited about and also what we can expect to see coming out on AJR Records?

Right now I’m sort of up to my eyeballs writing and producing music for a television series, a reality-type mystery show that has 175 episodes, so I haven’t booked too many live gigs at the moment. I’ve got a cool gig on March 2 in Qualicum Beach, though, which I’m really looking forward to. I’m playing a concert with Rick Kilburn on bass, his dad Jim on guitar and Ron Hadley on piano. When I was in grade nine I used to go out to the Kilburns’ house in Richmond and play tunes with Rick on bass and Jim, who’s an excellent guitar player. Jim was the co-founder, along with Dave Quarin, of the Vancouver Jazz Society and the original Cellar club at Main and Broadway, back in the fifties. The Kilburns used to have all kinds of famous guitar players staying over at their house, like Barney Kessel, Kenny Burrell, Howard Roberts, and Wes Montgomery. It was a very formative period for me and I’m really looking forward to this reunion. It’ll be especially fun because I can actually play now!

As to AJR, I’ve got lots of things in mind. First of all, I intend on recording a quartet album in the modern mainstream mode, flute, piano, bass, drums, playing standards that I like. I want to really explore these tunes in an artistic way, and feature intense playing all around. Next, I’d like to do a follow-up album to the "Synergy album I put out with Miles Black, but add Rene Worst on the bass, which will give the music a different direction. I’d also like to do a B3-type album, mostly on saxophone, because I’ve got Bob Murphy’s B over at my studio now and we’ve been getting together and playing some things. The first time I played with Bob, say in about 1969 or so, he was playing organ and kicking butt on the thing. He still does, and double!

We’re happy to have the opportunity to document this music and feature the incredible players that live and work in Vancouver. Cellar Live has created a terrific standard for the jazz world, and we’re just glad to be able to pitch in and add our voice to the music mix here.

Thanks, Tom.


Tom Keenlyside web site
AJR - Artist Jazz Recordings