Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine


Oliver Jones:
Canada’s Elder Statesman

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Oliver Jones has nothing to prove to anyone. At 74, his artistry and importance cannot be disputed by anyone in this country or abroad. Despite this, he continues to push himself, entertaining and encouraging his fellow human beings.

Jones is one of the most generous men I’ve ever encountered. Winnipeg audiences may remember him from his May 2006 performance in Asper Jazz Performances series. You may also remember that he donated his fee from those concerts to a young drummer entering the jazz program at the University of Manitoba—and allowed that young drummer to play a tune on stage with him. I was the young drummer, and thanks to his incredible generosity, I did not pay a cent for my first year of university. He has done the same for several other young Canadians, playing two or three benefit concerts a year for various causes.

His work has not gone unnoticed: Jones is the recipient of several Juno and Felix awards, five honorary degrees, the Order of Canada, the Governor General’s award, the Martin Luther King Jr Award, the Queen Elizabeth Golden Jubilee Award, and the Oscar Peterson Award. Despite all this, one thing remains certain: the man can sure play the piano.

Oliver Jones is a great performer—his concerts showcase his facility on the keyboard but also his genuine pleasure in playing for people. A few months after I met him here in Winnipeg, I saw him at the All-Canadian Jazz Festival in Port Hope ON, a festival he headlined. Always the crowd pleaser, at this particular show he took requests, playing tunes as diverse as “The Way You Look Tonight” and “Waltzing Matilda”—and playing them all beautifully.

A Montreal native, Jones was born in 1934 and grew up down the street from jazz legend Oscar Peterson. He began studying classical piano with Peterson’s sister Daisy, but also spent a lot of time just listening to Peterson practise. Studying classical piano until age 15, Jones ultimately began playing shows and commercial music, and playing jazz when he was able.

In 1964 Jones travelled to Miami and then to Puerto Rico with Jamaican singer Kenny Hamilton for what was supposed to be a four-month engagement. It took another fifteen years until he would return to Canada! The man responsible for bringing him back home and starting his real jazz career was Montreal bassist Charlie Biddle. Playing for six years at Biddle’s jazz club, he began recording for Justin Time Records in 1983, a relationship that continues to this day. After leaving Biddle in 1986, Jones toured the world several times over, ultimately retiring at the close of the century. It was only when he had the opportunity to play a duo concert with his friend and hero Oscar Peterson in 2004 that he decided to begin playing again.

His first post-retirement recording, One More Time (2006), refers to his coming back to music. The disc is superb, and is made up almost entirely of original compositions, with a couple of tried-and-true standards, “The Days of Wine and Roses” and “Body and Soul,” being the only exceptions. He adds horns to the mix for a few tunes, while the rest of the record showcases Jones in his most identifiable format, the trio. The album features Montreal drummer Jim Doxas and former Winnipegger and Canadian favourite Dave Young on the bass.

The horn players all get room to stretch out and each of them excels in their own way. Trombonist Dave Grott really shines on the title track with an incredibly facile and soulful solo. British Columbia-born Ingrid Jensen tears up “Good Day Miss Lee,” proving why she is one of the most important trumpet players on the scene today. Jim Doxas’ tenor saxophone-playing brother Chet also plays some memorable solos—his lyricism on “Ballad of a Lonely Man” is tough to match.

Jones’ latest recording, Second Time Around (2008), has just been nominated for a Juno award in the traditional jazz category. It showcases Jones’ always-developing output of original tunes, as well as nice renditions of familiar standards “Broadway,” “When I Fall in Love,” “Misty,” and “Surrey with the Fringe on Top.”

Jones is on record saying that he’ll perform until he turns 75, and then he’ll give up music for good. That being said, he turns 75 in September and doesn’t show any sign of slowing down—his playing is as youthful as ever, and his energy is contagious. In case he’s right though, Winnipeg audiences will want to be in their seats when he plays here on April 16. No doubt it will be an uplifting, swingin’ affair!

Curtis Nowosad is a busy Winnipeg drummer enrolled in the Jazz Studies program at the U of M.

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