Sunday, February 28, 2021

Great memories of the great jazz guitarist Ed Bickert

 I had a dream last night that was something about visiting my friend, guitarist David Occhipinti’s home. It ended up that there was going to be some sort of jazz awards celebration in the massive theatre that my dream created as part of his house. I guess, this more of a nightmare after all. I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep but my mind wandered to beautiful memories. Most of them were about the legendary Canadian jazz guitarist Ed Bickert. 

When I was in grade 13 (yes, there used to be 13 grades in Ontario) I came in to Toronto from Burlington Ontario with my drummer pal Steve Patterson. We played a lot of music together over the years in all our high school rock bands but also as part of our high school big band called Jazzworks. (This group also featured my longtime friend Rob Clutton on bass) Steve and I came in to Toronto to hear the legendary big band the Boss Brass at a club called Bourbon Street which was located on Queen st. W. 

As write this I am listening to Ed Bickert playing with Paul Desmond (on vinyl!). How exciting it is to realize that this record was recorded live at Bourbon St. Ten years before where my story about Ed unfolds. 

Of course, while in High School the only people who were more exciting and glamorous to me than musicians were hockey players. I had started studying jazz guitar with Tom Forsyth after many years of lessons with Carter Lancaster (who is now Gordon Lightfoot’s guitarist). Tom had exposed me to many great guitarist including Ed and Lorne Lofsky who I went on to study with at York University. However, I still had one foot in the rock world and I took every opportunity I had to hear my favourites play live such as Alex Lifeson with Rush, Kim Mitchell  or Eddie Van Halen. These guys were big stars and I dreamed of being like them.  

Back to Bourbon Street…Steve Patterson and I got a table and couldn’t believe how close we were sitting to the band. We were used to being way up in the nosebleed seats at Maple Leaf Gardens. This would have been Terry Clarke on drums and Steve Wallace on Bass. I remember that Steve Wallace didn’t look much older than us. The band finished their first set and Ed came over and sat at our table. I was so nervous, and Steve and I were quite starstruck. There was a fair bit of silence because little did I know yet that Ed was a man of few words. It makes me laugh to think how much I must have been staring at him while he was playing in order for him to know I was a young, aspiring jazz guitarist. (And walk over and and sit at our table)

I don’t remember a lot of what we talked about but I remember I told him I wanted to become a jazz guitarist. Ed took a deep drag on his cigarette and paused before he replied, “you can’t make a living playing jazz guitar.” The world stopped for me for a moment. I must have questioned this statement by saying something like “what about you?” I remember Ed saying, he made his money playing jingles, weddings, tv shows etc. and that he made very little money playing jazz. 

In what seems like no time I was studying jazz performance at York University in Toronto. (Actually in North York) I was living the dream. Most of my friends were jazz students and we would go out and hear all our favourite players downtown a couple times a week. I sometimes wonder how many times I heard Ed Bickert play live. Certainly something close to one hundred. 

In fourth year at York, I was in the top workshop which meant each week we would have a guest instructor from the Toronto jazz scene. Sometimes this included other great teachers I had at York like Pat LaBarbara or Mark Eisenman or sometimes it would be Steve Wallace or Don Thompson. We started getting pretty good and weren’t as nervous about playing with or for some of these great players. Then one day we were in the middle of our first tune and in walked Ed Bickert. The band stopped playing. (This didn’t usually happen) There was an awkward silence until I invited Ed to come sit at the front of the class near to where we were set up. Now we were nervous. After we played a tune for Ed we stopped and waited for further instruction. Silence. Ed paused long enough to have a drag on a smoke he couldn’t have. (you could no longer smoke inside a university in 1989) “Sounds good,” he said. There was a bit of nervous laughter from the band. I guess we already knew we were at least good if nothing else. 

I got brave and asked for a little more criticism or specific things we could improve. After another long pause Ed looked at me and said “maybe a few more grips.” Grips were a term that Ed and many guitarists after him used for chord voicings. 

By the way, I have switched the record. I am now listening to the great duo record that Rob McConnell (the late great leader of the Boss Brass) and Ed Bickert made called Mutual Street. 

I continued to practise (work on my grips!) and after finishing my honours degree at York I immediately spent a large part of my energy being a band leader and composing my own music. While I was drawn to some of the more contemporary sounds of Bill Frisell or Pat Metheny and eventually some of the avant-garde music coming out of Europe I always had a soft spot for the guitar playing of Ed Bickert. There was nothing like it. Many people in Toronto and eventually world wide played in a similar style but every time I saw Ed play live something magical came out of that Telecaster. 

Once at the Montreal Bistro after the last set a bunch of young guitarists (I think David Occhipinti was one of them)  and I were crowded around Ed asking questions and just excited to be in his presence while we finished our last beer. Finally, Ed looked at us and said something like “time to go to your homes.” Ha!

Many years passed and we were all saddened by the news that Ed’s wife had passed. The other sad news that went with this was that he would be retiring. It was hard to believe that I would never hear him play live again.  This had been such a constant throughout my life for more than twenty years. 

I continued to lead bands and make my own records. I started playing the banjo and getting serious about learning the 5-string in my late thirties. 

Saxophonist Mike Murley was having a 50th birthday party on the Danforth. He was playing a set of music and lots of friends were there. I saw Ed sitting in the back corner with drummer Barry Elmes. I was feeling shy but I really wanted to go over and say hi. As I approached his table he looked up at me, raised one of his big bushy eyebrows and said, “I hear you're playing the banjo now.” That was the last time I saw Ed. 

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