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Jazz Guitar in Canada’s Largest City



JGT guest contributor Joe Barth takes a look at the jazz guitar scene in different cities – next up, Toronto.

Breathtaking is eleven hundred feet above the city and the waterfront skyline of Lake Ontario during a quiet lunch up at ‘360 The Restaurant’ in the CN Tower.  Equally exhilarating is watching a shark swim above your glass walk-thru tank at Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada. Downtown Toronto has one of the oldest streets, called King Street, with its eclectic mix of high-end lifestyle, and it’s a place where you can see one of the top shows that just finished a run on Broadway.  There is also much live music to catch when you’re in Toronto, especially some jazz guitar. 

From the 1940s and 50s Toronto has been a hotbed for jazz.  

Jazz lovers were able to hear one of the greatest jazz bebop concerts that ever took place from a recording that Charles Mingus made at Massey Hall on May 15, 1953.  A program brought together by the New Jazz Society of Toronto had five of the leading modern players of their day – saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Bud Powell, bassist Charlie Mingus, and drummer Max Roach, who had never practiced or recorded together.   The Quintet released this historic concert on Debut Records (a label formed by Mingus and Roach) as three ten-inch LPs, and with smooth polishing from Mingus and Parker, and a cool jazz Toronto vibe, this new record label created a positive memory.  It was the only time the five musicians performed together and it was the last time Parker and Gillespie were bandmates before Parker’s drug-related death.  

In October of 2001 pianist, Herbie Hancock led and recorded live an all-star group that included Michael Brecker on tenor sax, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade. The album was entitled “Directions in Music: Live at Massey Hall”.  It won the Best Jazz Instrumental Album in 2003. 

One of the best jazz guitar albums ever, Jim Hall’s “Live” was recorded in June of 1975 at the Bourbon Street club in Toronto. A balanced live performance of Jim Hall: guitar, Don Thompson: bass, and Terry Clarke: drums.  Pat Metheny said of this album “…the ideal band, the ideal tunes, the ideal setting.”

Toronto has been the home to a number of legendary jazz artists.  

One of jazz’s greatest pianists, Oscar Peterson lived for thirty years in Mississauga just outside Toronto.  Trombonist Rob McConnell and two musicians that were referred to as Jim Hall’s (and Paul Desmond’s) “Canadian Rhythm Section” bassist Don Thompson and drummer Terry Clarke all make their homes in Toronto.

Lorne Lofsky

Lorne Lofsky was born in Toronto on May 10, 1954.  Originally playing rock, Lorne was taken with jazz music around 1970, when he heard Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” album.  He then discovered guitarists Ed Bickert, Lenny Breau, Sonny Greenwich (all Toronto guitarists), and a host of world-class jazz artists that performed at the Bourbon Street club in Toronto.  Working with trombonist Butch Watanabe at George’s Spaghetti House Lorne met Oscar Peterson who was so impressed with his playing that he offered to produce an album for Lorne on Pablo Records.  The recording, “It Could Happen to You” took his career to a new level. Lorne Lofsky later played in Petersons’ groups from the 1980s into the 1990s.  

Lorne came under the friendship and mentorship of guitarist Ed Bickert – until Bickert’s death in 2019. In the later 1980s and 1990s, they performed and toured frequently as well as recorded two albums together. Lofsky’s work with saxophonist Kirk MacDonald is another major part of Lorne’s career.  Lorne has recorded with a “Who’s Who” of jazz artists and has a new album on Modica Music called “The Song is New” coming out in April 2021.

Growing up in the Okanogan of British Columbia in 1952, Ed Bickert moved to Toronto and worked as a radio announcer until he could make his living with the guitar.  Ed was a first-call studio musician in Toronto and in the evenings, worked in house rhythm sections for a few clubs, which allowed him access to the best jazz musicians who came into Toronto.  He has numerous albums with Concord Records, Sackville Records, and other labels.  Paul Desmond invited Ed to play on his Columbia Records release entitled Pure Desmond and Ed’s playing helped that album to go on and earn a Grammy Award. Reflecting on this album Ed says, “Paul had actually come to Toronto several times and played at the Bourbon Street.  He was kind of coming out of a semi-retirement and he was thinking about doing another recording and since we had been working together, he asked if I would like to play on a new recording project. He was very generous with leaving a lot of space for me to play on his recording.    He asked Ron Carter and Connie Kaye to be in the rhythm section. So, we had gotten together very briefly one afternoon to talk about what tunes we were going to do.  I remember Ron Carter asking what I was going to do for an intro on one of the tunes and I said I don’t know, I would just come up with something at the time.  He said, ‘That’s not good enough. I need to work it out and make sure I don’t mess it up.’  He wasn’t unpleasant about it, he just had a different way of going about things. I prefer to be very spontaneous and in the moment.  We got together for the first day of recording and it was not very productive for a number of reasons, partly because I was feeling very pressured and that I had a headache.  I was starting to get a bit nervous.  But, fortunately, the second day just went great.  May I say, it was the grace of God.”  In 1975 Ed also did a live album with Paul called “The Paul Desmond Quartet Live” that was recorded at the Bourbon Street Jazz Club in Toronto.  Ed also collaborated on a number of albums with Rosemary Clooney for the Concord label.  Many feel that Ed does some of his best playing on these Clooney albums.

Bickert is known for the dark rich sound from his Telecaster.  About his sound, Ed says he got it by “…mainly rolling off the highs. That’s about all. The other would be the way I pick. I believe the way a person picks is extremely important to the sound that they get.  I also changed the front pickup to a Humbucker so the pole pieces could be balanced more. The amp I used for years was a Standel with one 15” speaker.  I think it was called the Custom 15.  I loved that amp but I wore it out and it eventually died.   When I first came to Toronto I had an Epiphone Triumph guitar and played that for a few years.  Then, for whatever reason, I switched over to a Gibson ES-175. I guess I chose that guitar because guys like Jim Hall and Joe Pass were playing one. I played that for many years.  But because of all studio work I was doing, I needed the versatility of a solid body guitar so I got the Telecaster.”

After Ed’s wife, Madeline’s death, he went into retirement in 2000 rarely playing the guitar and died in February of 2019.

Though born in Maine in 1941 Lenny Breau moved to Toronto in 1962 and formed the jazz trio “Three” with singer, Don Francks and bassist, Eon Henstridge.  “Three” received some recognition recording a live album at the Village Vanguard in New York as well as appearing on the Jackie Gleason and Joey Bishop television shows.  Soon Breau moved to Winnipeg and eventually to Los Angeles where he died in 1984.  Richard Lieberson describes Lenny’s playing as:

Breau’s fully matured technique was a combination of Chet Atkins’s and Merle Travis’s fingerpicking and Sabicas-influenced flamenco, highlighted by right-hand independence and flurries of artificial harmonics. His harmonic sensibilities were a combination of his country roots, classical music, modal music, Indian, and jazz, particularly the work of pianist Bill Evans.

Sonny Greenwich was born on New Years Day in 1936 in Hamilton just outside Toronto.  He lived in Toronto until 1974 then moved to Montreal.  In 1968 he played with Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, and Tony Williams at the Colonial Tavern in Toronto and the following year again with Miles’ group at Massey Hall.  Concerning his approach, Greenwich says, “I play a wide range, from ballads to very fiery, very free pieces.  It’s like an ocean – you have to have two things, the storm and the calm that comes after, and the one thing helps the other express itself.”

Born in 1954 in Nova Scotia, Roy Patterson moved to Toronto in 1978 to attend York University (where he later returned to teach).  Roy is one of the busiest players around the Toronto area performing both jazz and popular music.  Drawn to Americana music he displays a hybrid from impressions of the music he heard growing up.  

David Occhipinti started playing Beatles songs before getting interested in Wes Montgomery and Pat Metheny.  In 1989 Occhipinti studied with Dave Holland and Kevin Eubanks at the Banff School of Fine Arts Workshop which had a profound effect upon his musical direction.  During the mid-1990s David lived in New York and studied with Jim Hall. David lived in Italy for a few years after his studies in New York and played frequently in Italy and Switzerland. He worked with Antonio Farao, an amazing pianist, and then moved back to Toronto in 1996. Of Occhipinti, Jim Hall said “His writing is unique, his playing is completely original and stunning. I just wanted to keep listening… His music is an absolute work of art!”  David remains a busy guitarist around the Toronto area.

Reg Schwager (1962) was born in the Netherlands and spending some of his childhood in New Zealand before his family settled in Canada.  Schwager moved to Toronto after high school and has been busy on the Toronto scene ever since. Reg has worked with George Shearing, Diana Krall, Rob McConnell, and Don Thompson. The Halifax Chronicle newspaper said “Schwager has managed to become the hottest of rising Canadian musicians…. Schwager’s solos spout like vines in the jungle, tangled and tough, and winding through everything.  His fluency and jazz literacy are encyclopedic. And his tasteful elaborations of the changes seem to end all too soon.”

Kevin Breit has been a fixture at Toronto’s Orbit Room for over thirteen years.  As a session musician, he has worked with Cassandra Wilson, Norah Jones, Celine Dion, k.d. lang, and Rosanne Cash.  Kevin has performed on ten Grammy-winning albums. 

Harley Card keeps active in playing contemporary jazz, popular music, and his own original music, along with various artists’ diverse music.  Rob Piltch started playing professionally at age seventeen.  In the late 70s and early 80s Piltch toured with Blood, Sweat and Tears then returned to Toronto and became a busy session guitarist.  Andrew Scott’s first exposure to jazz came from the Brubeck and Oscar Peterson records that his mother listened to.  Andrew has worked with Bob James, Earl Klugh, and David Sanborn.  Guitarist/composer/arranger Geoff Young has worked with Marilyn Crispell, Kenny Wheeler, and Paul Bley and is an excellent jazz guitar educator in the area.  Toronto is a city rich in jazz guitar talent.  I wish I could mention all the great guitarists there.

Master Luthier Linda Manzer working on a new guitar with guitarist Ted Ludwig.

Pat Metheny has turned to Toronto’s master luthier Linda Manzer for a number of his custom acoustic guitars including his Pikasso 42-stringed guitar.  Linda has built Pat over twenty-five guitars that all have their own distinctiveness.  Linda has also built for such artists as Bruce Cockburn, Paul Simon, Julian Lage, Carlos Santana, and others.  Linda began her training for guitar construction in 1974 and spent 1983-84 studying with and working alongside the great Jimmy D’Aquisto in New York City.

David Wren is a great guitar builder who has built for Jackson Browne and Joan Baez as well as many archtop players.  Linda Manzer has told me personally David Wren “is my guitar-making hero”. 

Doug Harrison started playing guitar in 1972, was a professional guitar repairman in 1980, but since 1992 has changed from restoration/repair work to focus on archtop construction, and is another excellent luthier in the Toronto area.  

The Rex Hotel Jazz & Blues Club is a great place to get a homemade burger and listen to some hot jazz music. Often mentioned by Downbeat magazine as one of the best music venues in the world, it is a place where Canada’s finest jazz musicians can be heard.

The Jazz Bistro on Victoria Street is another place for great food and music.  As their website tells… In 1989 the building at 251 Victoria Street was given new purpose when Bob Sniderman created the Senator steakhouse beside his legendary senator diner and a year later added the jazz club Top O’ the Senator.  For 16 years the steakhouse offered pre and post-theatre dining and the Top O’ The Senator became one of the most respected and well-known venues for live jazz in North America.  In March 2005 the Savoy Bistro replaced the Senator Steakhouse and a year later the building was once again dark.  Now, eight years later, the building at 251 Victoria Street has been given new life and new purpose as the Jazz Bistro the vision of Colin and Joan Hunter.  Lovers of music and fine dining, and realizing a need in the city they set out on a journey to create a comfortable, creative space to enjoy memorable nights of live performance and great food.

One of Toronto’s oldest bars, the Pilot Tavern on Cumberland Street has had jazz on the weekends going back three decades.

Started by rock lead guitarist Alex Lifeson (of Rush fame) the Orbit Room has been a breeding ground for young guitarists performing contemporary jazz and R&B music.  The Orbit is located in the heart of Toronto’s “Little Italy” district.

The Old Mill, The Emmet Ray, La Rev, and a slew of other venues have long-running jazz series as well. For traditional jazz, Grossman’s Tavern and Drom Taberna are good spots.

The University of Toronto has an excellent jazz program with David Occhipinti, Geoff Young, and Harley Card on their jazz guitar faculty.  Roy Patterson and Lorne Lofsky teach in the jazz guitar program at York University.  Lofsky also teaches at Humber College.

This article was written with research assistance from Harley Card, Lorne Lofsky, Linda Manzer, David Occhipinti, and Kathy Parker.

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