Bill McMahon is a fixture on the Winnipeg jazz scene, and always ready with a quick smile and a kind word. You’ve no doubt seen him at the drums, perhaps with the trio led by pianist George Reznik—they played together for over four decades! Bill is straightforward and enthusiastic, on the bandstand and off. I asked him to share some of his experiences…
How did you get your start on the drums?
In 1958, I was at a house party at my younger sister’s place. Her boyfriend was a drummer, and had his band there. After a couple of drinks, somebody dared me to get up and play—I got hooked! A couple of weeks later I bought my first drum set, and within a few months I was in a band.
In those days in Winnipeg there were half a dozen or so nightclubs that had live music six nights a week. A few years later all the men’s beer parlors became beverage rooms for both male and female patrons, and that’s when the entertainment started. I had a full-time day job as a heavy-duty diesel truck mechanic, but I took time off to play in those beverage rooms.
I built up my playing by working with better and better musicians. At one of the late-night sessions, I met Winnipeg’s legendary pianist George Reznik. Eventually I became a regular member of his trio and worked with him for over forty years.
Who do you consider your jazz inspirations?
A lot of fans have asked me who I think is the best drummer. I tell them there are too many! Some of my favourites are Mickey Roker, Ed Thigpen, Shelly Manne, Art Blakey, and Jeff Hamilton. My biggest jazz influences have been groups led by Oscar Peterson, Gene Harris, Monty Alexander, Oliver Jones, Ray Brown, Ron Carter, and Art Pepper, as well as vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald, Lou Rawls, and Joe Williams.
What are some highlights of your time on the Winnipeg jazz scene?
Working with George Reznik is a highlight. I’m pretty sure the George Reznik Trio holds the record for the longest weekly jazz session in Winnipeg: we played Saturday Afternoon Jazz at the Pembina Hotel for twenty-five great years!
One of the high points of my music career (and probably George’s too) was during our five-year engagement at the old Hy’s Steak Loft on Kennedy Street. The great guitarist Herb Ellis played a three-night show with our trio—I still remember that like it was last week!
How do you see our jazz scene changing?
Over the years, some promising young players from high school music programs would show up on the music scene. If they were fortunate, they could head to Toronto, Montreal, or the United States to complete their music training—and a lot of them never came back to Winnipeg. But since Steve and Anna-Lisa Kirby and their great crew set up camp at the U of M, we are seeing a lot more young players on the scene. (My current drum set is way older than all of them!) Even better, they are staying around! I think it’s great and I hope Steve keeps them coming. I would add that I have hired some of them and have had a lot of them sit in with my group. I am always amazed at the level of talent they display. My advice to them is to take advantage of the training available, and make the most of it.
Tell us about your new Saturday afternoon jazz venture.
Last year, we moved across to the Silver Heights Restaurant and Lounge on Portage Avenue. The Siwicki family, who own the Silver Heights, along with their staff, are wonderful, and the food is great. It’s a good place to play jazz! My regular group is Walle Larsson (sax/flute), Dave Hildebrand (piano/guitar), and Steve Hamilton (bass). If any of them aren’t available, I have a whole stable of musicians who will sub in—people like Carter Graham, Grant Jones, Derrick Gardner, Joceyln Gould, Lindsay Woolgar, and a bunch of others. We’ve also welcomed some of the young players like Connor Derraugh, Riley Bartlett, and Reggis Lewis. We’re on a summer break now, but will be back in our chairs on September 17.
You’re playing a summer concert too.
Yes, the McMahon Group will be performing on August 21 at the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden at Assiniboine Park. We’ll be playing jazz standards, along with some bebop and Latin tunes. It’s a beautiful setting, and a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon. I hope to see lots of old friends there!