Pianist George Reznik, a pillar of the Winnipeg jazz community, died this August at the age of 86. He is perhaps best known amongst today’s listeners for his trio’s extended run at The Pemby Hotel. He and long-time friends Bob “Moose” Jackson and Bill McMahon played there every Saturday afternoon for over twenty years. He started that gig at age 61, and only stepped away in his early 80s because the arthritis in his spine was making it hard to play.
Reznik’s long career gives us a glimpse into the jazz history in this city. He was a friend of Lenny Breau, and in Breau’s biography, One Long Tune, Reznik shares his amazement at the guitarist’s uncanny speed virtuosity. Reznik, a classically-trained pianist, observed to Breau at a gig that a turnaround in a jazz tune he just played had roots in Bach. Breau dropped by his house the following day, and they listened to the Bach G Minor Keyboard Suite together. Breau borrowed the record, and came back the following day having learned the whole thing. “He’d memorized the whole thing overnight, this piece that took me years to learn by reading and memorizing it,” Reznik said. ”That’s when I knew I was talking to a genius.”
Back in the day, Winnipeg had jazz clubs—the Northstar, the Top of the Inn, the Stage Door, and others—and lots of musicians, both local and visiting. In 1961, Reznik played for Barbra Streisand at the Town and Country. It was her first gig outside the US—she wasn’t quite twenty, talented but eccentric. Apparently the club owner didn’t take to her vintage dress and odd mannerisms. Not only did he release her from her contract, he also declared she didn’t have what it takes to succeed in show business.
About ten years earlier, Reznik sat in with Louis Armstrong when the trumpet legend’s pianist got ill. At the end of the gig, Armstrong said, “Hey kid, you did real good. Call me Louis, kid.” There’s a great photo of the band, including Reznik, gathered around a laughing Armstrong, on the Manitoba Music Museum website. Reznik would have been around twenty.
As a boy, George Reznik heard Oscar Peterson play at a friend’s house. He was so discouraged, he went home and told his mother to sell the piano because he would never be good enough. Fortunately for all of us, she didn’t take him at his word, and he ended up pouring music into this city for over six decades.