A Senses Census

Most people neglect their senses which makes no sense to me. This morning in my quiet time for thinking I was intensely aware of the sounds near me and I thought I would start a list of sounds in nature that I love. I then thought, ”why stop there?” How about other sounds made by humans? How about sounds you hate? How about the other senses: Touch, smell, taste, and the most used one (unless you are blind), sight. This got me to thinking about some of my friends and acquaintances who are missing one or more of their senses. I am grateful that I have my senses and I am aware and focusing on them.

It can be argued that there are more than five senses. Proprioception (body awareness that tells us how much strength to use for a task, for example) and the Vestibular sense which gives us information as to where our head and body are in space. I learned about these senses from Occupational Therapists in my career working with children with Autism, but these senses  are also useful and necessary in helping music students with the ergonomics of their instrument.

 For the sake of this essay/ set of lists I will deal with the five main senses and I will limit my lists to a top ten favourites, although within each category there are subsets and subsets of subsets…. oy, what have I started?

Sounds in nature that I love.

I love the sound of water…. not so much inside the house where it can signal a leak or a run on toilet etc.

The gentle lapping sound of a lake on the shore, on a moored boat, a dock etc. puts me in a calm and happy mood.

The powerful cymbal crashes of an ocean’s waves reaching a beach like in Cancun or rocks like at Peggy’s Cove, N.S.

The placid calm of a river’s stealthy flow or the roar of fierce rapids or a waterfall

the babbling of a brook

Then there are the different sounds of rain: gentle rain on differing surfaces, steady pouring rain, the tattoo of hail. 

Thunder-all kinds

Birds all have unique sounds. Here are some that I love:

Honking geese high overhead in v’s… usually signalling a change of seasons. The sad departure signalling the impending arrival of our long winter or the delight and hope of their arrival in spring.

chickadees, song sparrows, Blue Jays, crows, the white throated sparrow. mourning doves, kookaburra laughing. woodpeckers pecking, red winged blackbirds

I love the sound of wind in trees both coniferous and deciduous …the cracking of sap freezing.

I love cicadas, crickets, bullfrogs, galloping hooves, wolf howls (distant)

Man-made sounds that I love (aside from music…another category)

I love most train sounds… the clickety clack of wheels, the grinding, searing sound of switching tracks, a lonesome whistle in the distance ,  steam locomotives hissing, chugging.

zippers make a pleasant sound…Metal Zippers have a great sound both opening and closing. Plastic ones, not so much.

Car tires on a metal grate bridge deck. The Victoria Bridge in Montreal was built in 1860 to accommodate trains. It was the first link between the island of Montreal and the mainland. Built for trains. In 1899 the part that one could drive on was opened. As a child, I looked forward to visits with Uncle Charlie and Aunt Hemmy who lived in St. Bruno on the South Shore. We took the Victoria bridge even though there were several other faster routes in part, because my dad loved the sound as well.

air being let out of a tire or a bottle of carbonated liquid being opened are distinct sounds that please me.

corduroy 

wood being chopped 

park swings

the sound between stations  while dialling on an old tube radio.

empty churches

languages that are different from mine

Sounds I  hate 

velcro adjusting sounds like someone gathering phlegm in order to “gob”.(spit).

powered garden tools

60 cycle hum fluorescent lighting ballasts

any unwanted sound in a mic while recording.

microphone feedback

worn disc brakes

vocal fry

yelling,whining, patronizing

a needle dragging across a vinyl disc…also unwanted pops and clicks and click repeats…. I don’t mind these sounds in hip hop music, however. So, unintended

smells I love

peeling cucumber

slicing watermelon

camp fire

cooking curry, bbq, frying onions, bread, cookies, cake

vanilla stuart factory where they made cakes Laurier street

cooking with butter

baby shampoo 

Nathalie’s perfume

froesias- especially yellow ones.

smells I hate

cooking smells on clothes toaster, fried food, curry

housefire

pig/ sheep manure

stepped in dogshit. picking up poop with a bag is ok, except when the poop is “smooshed”. 

cigarette smoke first hand/second hand Has always been gross to me. As a child I had a friend whose clothes always smelled of stale smoke

stale breath…sour alcohol breath smoker breath, garlic hot dog burps

marigolds. They look lovely and last forever, but their scent is kind of sickly.

wet grey flannel pants. So sour smelling.

gasoline. -Oddly, I like the smell of Gasoline, but hate it on my hands after filling the tank.

touch I  love

the feel of real fur coats in the hall closet

cold smooth pebbles on my skin

the touch of my father’s stubble at the end of the day

the first tentative kiss before the heat.

velvet, satin, corduroy both wide and narrow

flannel sheets

smooth planed wood.

touch I hate

tin foil on metal filling.

putting on cold or wet, or cold and wet clothing.

emptying a pumpkin or a Turkey cavity

even the thought of someone touching my collarbone

tastes I  love

well toasted crumpet with melted butter and marmalade.

Fresh baguette with salted butter and honey

ripe in season cherries

watermelon

the cracklings on my mum’s roast beef

This list is by no means exhaustive, but if it makes you, the reader think about your senses or evokes similar visceral memories I am glad you have finally come to your senses.

Life Loves On

It was a rainy day in Montreal, I was kind of Blue having heard of the death of a close friend I had known since high school. I was reading The Atlantic magazine articles on line. I came across this one: https://www.theatlantic.com/press-releases/archive/2021/08/september-2021-cover-press-release/619694/ which is a story about how losing someone in 9/11 affected a family from the perspective of 20 years later. The story resonated with me.

While practicing my nylon string guitar later that morning I started playing a couple of chord sequences that caught my fancy. I was zoning out and started to ad lib words and “life loves on”stuck. I decided to try and build a song around that phrase. I love turns of phrase and tried many before settling on life loves on and love lives on which are subtly similar and yet somewhat different. The actual 4 note motif for “life loves on” fits the “Hallelujah” part from an old Anglican Hymn: “All Creatures Of Our God and King”

I was staring out the window at the teeming rain and the phrase “into each life some rain must fall” which I thought might be a bible verse because my mum had used it often. I googled the line, and It turned out it was a line in “The Rainy Day” written in 1842 after the death of his first wife, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The entire poem fit neatly into what I was trying to create, so, rather than re-invent the wheel, I set his poem to music with only a slight adaptation and some repetition.

The Story Of Jack Gas

Chapter One

This is a story about Jack Gas, a boy who grew into his name. Jack grew up as a normal boy who did normal things and everything about him screamed normal except for his name which was an easy target for the bullies at school and at the playground. He was teased mercilessly because his name sounded a bit like “jackass”.

In 6th grade, as “the puberty” visited, Jack developed quite a nervous stomach. He quite literally grew into his name. Jack became chronically flatulent. His body began producing methane at an enormous rate. Jack needed to expel this gas very frequently to avoid debilitating cramps and severe discomfort. At first, his “outbursts” arrived every five minutes or so, which Jackie tried to disguise by lifting a cheek off his chair and manually lifting and separating his buttocks to minimize the noise. Unfortunately this had the effect of making his gas “SBD” which we all know is “Silent, but deadly!”.

For some reason the farts smelled worse if there was no noise. The snap and pop of his noisier farts dispersed with a lesser olfactory effect. It was impossible for Jack to “sneak one by”. Anonymity was not an option. Everyone knew that all smells and all rude noises came from Jack Gas. This was actually convenient for some his classmates who could fart with impunity and never be blamed. A whole new perspective on “passing” gas. Jack Gas was given credit for other people’s twinkies. 

The toll on Jack Gas’s school/social life was extreme. He became ostracized No one wanted to be seated near Jack at school, the girls all thought he was gross and the boys, although some were secretly jealous of Jack’s ability to expel air at will, played along with the girls in calling out Jack Gas for being gross. Jack was reprimanded so often by the teacher for his classroom clearers that eventually Jack Gas was given permission to leave the class discretely without raising his hand first if he felt an eruption coming on (which was frequently). 

Jack Gas’s home life also had become quite different. The constant flatulence meant that Jack ate in the kitchen at dinner time rather than around the dining room table with his family. Road trips together were also a thing of the past as Travel with Jack was quite unpleasant. Jack Gas’s only road trips were to see any one of a plethora of medical specialists who tried to get to the bottom of Jack Gas’s condition. Dieticians, internalists, allergists, just about every medical specialty ending in “ist”. Then the were the non medical “ists” and “paths”, herbalists, naturalists, mycologists, osteopaths, naturopaths, pathists, istopaths, none of whom could offer any relief. The only thing relieved was Jack Gas’s dad who was relieved of hundreds of dollars with each futile attempt to fix the problem.

Isolation began to take it’s toll on Jack Gas. He never got hugs from his parents, never horsed around with his brothers anymore. Jack Gas no longer played any team sports, didn’t go on field trips, in fact all extra curricular school activities had to be stopped. No scouts, no choir, no summer camp.

The family dog, “Pizza” didn’t mind most of Jack Gas’s smells, and only left the room for the most vile smelling ones. You knew a bad one was in the air if Pizza left the room.

Jack Gas was still afflicted by the time he had to start Junior High School. He had hoped to be better, but to no avail. His hormones were full on raging and Jack Gas started to notice girls. Girls noticed him as well, but only in order to avoid him. There was a girl he saw from time to time in the library who didn’t move if he sat down near her, and who treated Jack Gas normally. Her name was Lorna. She was what you might call “bookish”. She spent all of her spare time in the library. Jack Gas started to spend more time in the library as well now in hopes that he would somehow encounter Lorna. Even when he did encounter Lorna he had to wait until the engrossed Lorna surfaced from her reading. Jack felt like a polar bear waiting near a seal’s breathing hole in the ice for the seal to arrive. 

One day, as Lorna closed her book, she took off her eyeglasses and was cleaning the lenses when she looked up and there was an awkward moment when she and Jack Gas made eye contact. Jack nervously spoke first. They discussed the book she had just read and had similar observations about the plot and the characters. The small talk was good, but Jack had a question he was dying to ask her. He finally just blurted out “How come you don’t avoid me like everybody else?”

Lorna replied that she has no sense of smell, and furthermore, likes to be left alone to read, so  she didn’t find Jack Gas’s smells offensive, and as a bonus, no one bothered her if she sat near him. She continued by saying that she liked that Jack was respectful of her space and didn’t interrupt her reading. They started to hang out together and even walked home together as Lorna’s home was a mere block and a half away from his. 

One day, Lorna invited Jack Gas to come inside for a snack and to play backgammon. Jack balked, but Lorna reassured him that it was OK, her mum was deaf, so couldn’t hear his farts, and Lorna had inherited her poor sense of smell from her dad, Ernie “Hot Rod” Morris. Ernie got his nickname from a local hoodlum named Gary, whose only apparent skill was in giving nicknames as slurs to his neighbours. Gary had observed that Ernie was a very timid driver who drove at a snail’s pace through the neighbourhood. Ernie was not, in fact, timid, but drove slowly in the neighbourhood because of the dozens of children and pets that lived there. Jack’s nickname from Gary was: “Pepe” short for the Looney Tunes skunk Pepe Le Pew. Lorna was soon to become “Pepe Adjacent”

Hot Rod invited Jack to stay for supper. Cabbage rolls….. 

Jack Gas and Lorna became inseparable. Their friendship blossomed and seemed to be headed towards becoming a romance as well, but fate intervened. Maybe not fate insomuch as the inevitable cruelty and unfairness of life in the pitiless substrata of high school cliques. Lorna soon discovered that being Pepe Adjacent meant that she was soon unable to follow her other interests (choir, weaving, debating and puppetry) because of the gossip and cruel innuendos of her peers in these clubs. She had to decide if it was worth it to remain Jack’s friend. 

Lorna was in tears one night after she had gone to bed. Her dad had noticed she was not herself at dinner and when he heard the sniffles through her closed door, he knocked and entered. Lorna spelled out her dilemma to her father and he set himself to thinking about how to solve her problem. 

Her dad remembered years ago how out of place he had felt due to his lack of scent. His peers would put salt on his cornflakes and serve him actual dog biscuits. Could have been worse. Ernie told his dad about it and his dad suggested visiting a “word-of-mouth” man named “Ruby” who had a semi-hidden kiosk in a lane off a cul-de-sac in Chinatown. Ruby had various cures for sundry human conditions that actually worked. His ointment to destroy warts was his biggest seller, but he also had a balm for shingles, he had a pill that could give a man a 24 hour erection, and on a related note, an oil for any number of venereal diseases. Ruby had many other concoctions as well. When Young Ernie went with his dad to visit Ruby, he recalled the dimly lit, smoky hovel with deadly accuracy. When told of the problem, Ruby stroked his tiny grey beard and started to pull out several drawers and gather some ingredients together. Each ingredient was in a tiny box or vial that had icons on them that Ernie assumed were words in Mandarin. Ruby mixed seven dry ingredients that may have been herbs, or dried mushrooms or powdered bones, etc. Only Ruby knew exactly what the ingredients were, and he almost never spoke, hence these were secret recipes. When he had mixed his concoction for Young Ernie, he separated the powder into 8 piles with a razor blade and placed each pile into the centre of small brightly coloured origami papers (I know, Origami is Japanese and Ruby is Chinese). He then folded each little paper into neat envelopes that easily opened only one way and provided a natural spout to pour the powder either directly into the throat, or into a receptacle to mix with liquid. Ruby said “Good for 8 days” and “twenty dollars” and ended with “one small side effect, nothing free”. He never divulged what the side effect was, but it became clear after Young Ernie took his first dose and began smelling smells much more vividly than we ever could. It was like he got smell and taste on a level with a dog’s hearing. Ultra smell and ultra taste akin to having an operation on your eyes and going from blindness to fully sighted when the bandages were unravelled. Words like “lush”, “opulent”, “savoury” come to mind. The drawback was that each smell was like an overdose. Each taste was overwhelming and all together made for unpleasant eating. Young Ernie learned that day that living without scent and taste was not so bad as being overwhelmed by it to the point of paralysis. He flushed the seven remaining packets down the glugger.

Lorna said to her dad “I’m not asking for me…..It’s Jack’s problem.” Hot Rod said that maybe Ruby (if he’s still alive) has a cure for flatulence. Let’s go check it out. Lorna called Jack and they drove to Chinatown and parked on the outskirts. Hot Rod and Lorna walked along oblivious to all the wonderful aroma encounters available in Chinatown, but Jack was familiar with all the fried smells, the sugary smells, even the not so great stench of the trash bins behind each establishment. He bought some Sesame balls with the red plum paste inside to have later. 

Hot Rod’s memory navigated to the last lane before the cul-de-sac and he almost missed Ruby’s kiosk as it looked even more decrepit and over run than it had twenty years previous. He opened the door gingerly and squinted into the dark. Sure enough, on a stool behind the counter sat a wizened old gnome with a scraggly beard who bowed to him without speaking. Hot Rod started “you may not remember….” And the old man said: “no taste, I remember, want more?” Hot Rod  responded in the negative, the old man laughed…”side effect too much, huh?” And Hot Rod nodded.

Jack Gas didn’t need to describe his problem to Ruby. Ruby said “too many fart, yeah?” Jack shrugged. Ruby said “one minute” Ruby went about the same ritual he had done with Hot Rod twenty years earlier. Drawers flung open and shut, boxes and vials extracted, only the ingredients were different or maybe not, only Ruby knew. Ruby pulled out his mortar and pestle and began grinding ingredients in the mortar. He was humming lightly a melody that was all at once universal and unfamiliar. No words, just sounds, although to our ears a foreign language seems to be just sounds…. We don’t know if it was an incantation or just happy unrelated music. When Ruby was done, he separated the powder evenly and placed eight piles each on their paper origami paper and folded each one meticulously. He turned to Jack and said “good for eight days, no charge this time, next time forty dollar.” Ruby added: “not so small side effect, nothing free…!”

Hot Rod, Lorna and Jack returned to the car and started for home. Hot Rod suggested that Jack take the first envelope right away. Jack poured the powder down his throat and chased it with some iced bubble tea. Almost immediately Jack’s gas stopped. The relief was short lived, though as they discovered the “side effect”. Twenty minutes after ingesting the powder Jack sensed a humongous explosion building up inside of him and he knew it was going to be a ripper.

FRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR………………appppppppppppppp

I am not exaggerating when I say that from the time it started until it’s last murmur Hot Rod’s car logged 2 kilometres in city traffic. The volume and force of this particular fart might have even registered on the Richter scale. Aside from the force of it, both Hot Rod and Lorna who supposedly had no sense of smell, rolled down their windows and leaned towards the fresh air gasping. Some side effect. 

After the Guinness worthy fart, however, Jack experienced a relief that was to continue until the next day. Twenty four hours fart free. The potion worked. 

The Fourth Wall in Cottage Country

We were sitting around a campfire deep in Quebec cottage country last night, surrounded by pine and balsam trees and enjoying the crackling of the fire and poking at it occasionally to produce fireflies and fireworks. In the distance we heard some music wafting on the air from another cabin that is far enough away for us to feel private, but we were still within earshot of their music. It wasn’t all that loud, and we might have felt it intrusive but for the conversation and the memories it inspired.

I recognized the music as coming from an album (albums) I had owned and enjoyed as a teenager when my family first moved to the Laurentians.

Grand Funk Railroad was a rock power trio popular in the early 1970’s. At the time, their music appealed to me. I liked that it was bluesy, had sort of soulful vocals, fairly decent vocal harmony and lots of guitar improvising. I mail away ordered Grand Funk Live which was a double album and had extended versions of all the songs I liked except “Closer To Home”. I think I got it through the Columbia Record Club from an ad in the back of a comic book or the Saturday coloured section of the paper. 

The live album came out in 1970. I mentioned to the girls that I knew the album well and said “I bet we and that neighbour are the only people in this entire world listening to that particular album at this very moment.” They guffawed and said “no way! “, but we finally agreed that it would be highly unlikely anyone else was listening to it as it is way out of fashion and almost entirely forgotten. A footnote. A possible answer to the Boomer version of Trivial Pursuit. Unless there was some revival of the music of Grand Funk Railroad going on in the world right now that we are unaware of, or a satellite radio specialty station, probably no one else was listening at this exact moment. 

It’s most likely that the neighbour playing it is a man, French speaking, probably around my age. This music appealed more to men/boys. I was Almost certain it is the vinyl, not CD or mp3. Although I heard “Closer To Home” with flute, so maybe a playlist or maybe he had a stack of lps out of sequence.

I asked my companions (my girls and son-in-law) to invent possible scenarios for why the person would put on this particular album at this exact time. 

Maybe he comes to the cottage on weekends or vacation to let off steam and keeps his records here. Maybe he is a “local”. Someone who never left the area he grew up in. Perhaps he put the music on and conked out blotto on the chaise longue.

Has he been listening to this album often? Or is it an occasional pleasure. Maybe it is “break up” music that he plays to cleanse his psychic palette of the fresh pain and loneliness. Maybe he just bought it out of curiosity at a garage sale or flea market, maybe he found it by the curb after someone tried to sell off their lps. Could have been a recent gift from an old friend. A plethora of possible scenarios. Nostalgia, soundtrack to drama, odd coincidence. My youngest daughter had another scenario to add: maybe he is a founding member of Grand Funk who wooed local ladies to his lair with his fame and needed to hear his own music to “perform”. Highly likely, but no.

I prefer to believe that his name is Yves and he listens to this music regularly and has been doing so since he was fifteen.  Never breaking free of the mould. An eternal teenager. 

I imagine if I had stayed in that time warp for the last fifty years. Stayed in my home town, never broke out, never matured, never went to uni, never had careers, kids, never saw the world…. never progressed past Grand Funk in my listening. The human equivalent of one of those blind mules they used to put in mines whose life consisted of trudging up and down a mine shaft hauling ore and returning empty bins to be refilled. Back and forth, back and forth, always the same track, never seeing daylight,  always eating the same mash, never even a pat on the head, just doing. 

When I was fifteen,  I dressed like Neil Young, wore my hair long, wore patched jeans and flannel shirts or hunting jackets. I knew it all. 

I am kind of still like that, except my jeans don’t get patched anymore and now I know nothing. 

At that age I stayed in my room a lot listening to the same five or six lps  over and over again. When no one was around I would blast them loud as I could. 

-Traffic- Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys

-Santana- Abraxas

-Grand Funk -Live

-Deep Purple -In Rock

-Steppenwolf-Monster

There were more, but these were a few of my high rotation dirty pleasures. 

These albums would also spin at “get togethers” with friends. We didn’t really have parties, or at least, that isn’t what we called them. Maybe I just wasn’t aware of or invited to any parties. These get togethers Were a place to strut, get high, drink beer, try and pair off while listening to what we believed was the coolest music ever created as we were differentiating from our families of origin.

From the vantage point of our campfire, we heard no talking, just the music. If it was a get together, it was a get together of mutes. I think it was just one guy…. passed out.

I know I could have gone over there and seen for myself, I probably would have liked the guy, maybe had a beer.

Maybe the music was a signal for anybody within earshot to come and visit and get together. Maybe it was a warning to stay away. To leave him alone.

I didn’t want to break what in theatre they call the fourth wall. He probably thought he was all alone in the country as we also had thought. It is like the “privacy” of those curtains in hospital wards. We believe that we are alone but everyone in the room knows you are getting your catheter changed. 

I had other reasons to not seek out the source of the music, one of which was in order to write a story about it. Sometimes fiction can be better than reality.

Better Than Gold

My first music teaching job after graduating from McGill, was in Manitoba. I inherited a healthy band program from my friend Kenny Gold who had recommended me as a bilingual music teacher. I made the move out west and worked my butt off to keep the program growing. 

My predecessor had started a jazz combo which I continued. We had a lovely group of kids that took it pretty seriously. In the combo were three kids whose parents were musicians. 

Pete and Joe were brothers. Joe played alto sax and flute, although he didn’t play flute in the combo. His brother Pete played drums and piano. Both boys were very adept at their instruments and I could not teach them anything technical as they had already surpassed my knowledge. What I was able to teach them was style, humour and attitude and pointed them towards the right things to listen to. Their parents played in the Winnipeg Symphony and both brothers had had extensive private training. Both boys went on after school to playing, writing and recording original music. Joe had his own studio. For a while as well. 

Clayton was a tenor saxophonist and had a lovely tone. A big sound. He was not a very good reader, but made up for it with a great ear and his ability to imitate his tenor heroes. His dad was a jazz bass player, so Clayton heard lots of that style of music. I never told him what to play, though I did suggest he try to copy solos from pros. His playing on St. Thomas (Sonny Rollins calypso tune) was particularly beyond his years.

Another set of brothers, Bruce and Richard played trumpet and bass clarinet respectively. Bruce was a hard worker and was able to extend his range pretty high à la Maynard Ferguson. Their dad was a “band booster” and drove kids all over the place and was able to get us playing opportunities outside of school. 

Our pianist was Leanne. She never improvised, but was a very good reader, so was able to play jazz voicings that were written out for her. Her mum and dad also were very supportive. 

Our bass player was Ricky. He was a tall, quiet, steady ginger who was a very steady bottom for our horns. At the Brandon Jazz Festival the band was billeted in a dormitory. When I did my rounds checking on kids, some of the rooms were pretty rowdy, and mildly naughty things were going on, Ricky was reading the bible……

The combo kept getting better and better. Joe graduated, but returned to school for rehearsals. We went to Jazz festivals and at one of them we won a gold medal in our category. We were thrilled to bits as you can imagine. This win meant we were invited to a national competition held that year in Calgary. It was a big honour, and we started to fund raise even before we got the go ahead from “the suits”.

After all the plans were put into place we had a band meeting before a rehearsal so I could complete our application form. I needed the birthdays of all the kids. Ricky had just had a birthday and as I wrote the info on the form, I realized it bumped us up into a higher category (18 -22). I told the kids, and arguments started. Some of the kids wanted me to lie about his age. I said that it was tempting, but what kind of a role model would I be if I lied? I managed to convince them that the goal was to play and do our best, and who cares if we don’t get a medal, we already proved ourselves. I also said that getting a medal if we know we cheated would not be an honour.

In Calgary, the kids saw and heard excellent music, attended workshops with pros and fraternized with jazz music nerds from all around the country. It was fun and interesting.

Our performance went very well. All the kids were at their very best. Joe, Clayton and Bruce played particularly inspired and with a new fire. They played with nothing to lose, up against really good college kids against whom we felt we had no chance.

On awards night, we sat through some really great music interspersed with each categories results. As each category was read and the honourees lauded,  we saw products of great well-funded programs reaping their well-deserved awards. When our category came up, we all crossed our fingers and when we heard the words “Silver goes to St. Norbert Collegiate” we all were on cloud nine. I had tears, pretty sure they all did. It was such a great feeling.

The evening continued and individual awards were presented. Clayton won Yamaha award for “outstanding soloist” Bruce also won a similar award for one of his solos.

I think we went out for a treat afterward, and we talked it over. Everyone was ecstatic at our placing. I asked if anyone regretted not lying, and everyone said “no”. 

I was proud of those kids, they were like a little family.

Sometimes Silver is better than Gold.

P.S. we were invited to play the Montreal Jazz Festival, but most of the kids were not able to go. So, in order to attend, we changed the combo lineup and I got to play with Pete and Joe who had been accepted to McGill and two other musicians who went on to successful music careers. 

After Calgary,  I decided I had done a good job, but I wanted new challenges and to be back in Montreal, so I resigned and enrolled in the Masters program at McGill.

Not the combo, but Senior Band from 1987 or 8




My Best Lesson Wasn’t Planned….

One of the most effective lessons I ever taught came spontaneously as the result of a “teachable moment.”

The year was 2001 and the date was several weeks after 9/11. I was teaching a grade ten music class in a private school and as part of my lesson I was exposing the children to music that they might otherwise never hear. 

Some of the details of this lesson are hard to retrieve, like what music I was playing at the time. Let’s just say it was Chicago playing Saturday In The Park. It might more probably been Tower Of Power. I do remember It was a band with horns, of that I am sure. A boy in the class said “that sucks!” I immediately stopped the song and asked a one word question: “Why?”

The boy replied “because it does!” I replied: “I see, and what criteria did you use to make that assessment?”. He said “I don’t like it!” Which I said was a more acceptable statement because it was a personal opinion. I dug deeper. “”Why don’t you like it?” I continued “ it is tuneful, well produced, well recorded, a very listenable piece of music.” I then made the parallel of food, saying: “I don’t particularly like lasagna, do you like it?” He answered in the affirmative as did most of the class. I asked what he thought his response would be if I had said “Lasagna sucks!”? Lights went on around the room as the discussion grew deeper. 

We recognized that sweeping statements were poor communication and realized that one needed to have a reason to like or not like something. The boy really had no vocabulary for what I was seeking from him. I was able to give twenty reasons why I did like it and how, with all the great music out there I would not play them something that “sucked!” 

I told the kids that it is much easier to say something destructive than it is to very create something. Blank stares. 

I went to the closet and picked out a retired hand drum. It had once been half of a set of bongos, but had lost it’s partner and was just one of the useless unusable instruments hanging around a music room. I held the drum up and asked how it was made, and how long it might have taken. We discussed the materials, wood that was grown, harvested, sawed, beveled, shaped, glued, varnished. The skin was a calf that had to be birthed, kept, slaughtered, skinned, cut, tanned, stretched. The skin was held in place by metal pins. The ore needed to be mined, smelted, shaped, plated. There had to be a design for the drum, etc. The point being, making the drum took ideas, effort and time and cost. We agreed on a value of time and a cost. 

I then threw the drum on the ground as hard as I could and jumped on it, completely destroying it. The kids looked at me like I was insane. They asked me why I did that. My response was: “It is really easy to destroy something that was hard to create!” I asked them how much thought and energy went into destroying the drum? I saw more lights go on. 

I then guesstimated how long it took to build the twin towers which we had watched collapse live the previous month. We talked about all the architects, engineers, tradesmen, etc. Same as the drum. And as it happened there were half a dozen Mohawk children in the class who said their fathers had been away in New York for seven years working on the girders. Mohawk people have a long tradition of being high altitude steel workers. We discussed the human cost of their absence and the long commute to and from Kanawake. We then reflected on how long it took for the buildings to fall and how much skill it took to bring them down. 

All the lights went on.

To wrap up the lesson I paraphrased: “It is harder to create something than it is to destroy it” “Be a creator, not a destroyer!” 

The kids actually applauded. 

Some thoughts on Pro Sports

I was talking with my friend Luigi yesterday, and I innocently asked if he would be watching Les Canadiens that evening. He replied in the affirmative. I told him I don’t usually watch, but this year I tuned in to the Montreal/Toronto series and got hooked. The team was playing well and looked like they were having fun. They beat the Leafs and then swept Winnipeg and eked past Las Vegas to appear in the finals with Tampa Bay. 

I asked if he noticed the size of the brutes playing for Tampa Bay, and he said “and the size of their salaries, they slipped through a loophole and have slipped past a salary cap” which means they have superstars against our mere asteroids. I said it is kind of disgusting to be in a race on a scooter next to a souped up Hemi Roadrunner. It takes the fun out of it. Like playing cards with a stacked deck…. not exactly fair. Not exactly “sportsmanlike”.

It was evident that the Canadiens would lose game three from the first period on. It was 6-3 finally. The Lightning (Greased Palm Lightning) are ahead in the series 3-0. It is possible that the Canadiens could fight back. They have done it before, but this Lightning team has a goalie that, if he were a few inches bigger, could effectively seal the crease without moving. Their team are all at least a head taller than our guys. Orcs vs. Hobbits. Good should finally prevail, but probably won’t. It is a shame, because I was enjoying this run at the cup until we met the bullies.  The Lightning are VERY SKILLED, there is no doubt about that, they will win the cup and should win it. It is the league that is flawed and money driven.

Luigi told me that he was enjoying the Euro cup, especially….you guessed it…Italy. He told me that the coach for Italy didn’t want superstars who would wade in and score, he wanted athletes that cooperated and treated each other with fairness and respect. 

I get it. I won’t follow soccer, just because I find it to be like geriatric hockey and the players, although marvellous physical specimens are a bit wimpy when it comes to a slight kick in the shins….. But I love watching the various communities driving around with their proud flags and honking horns etc. I abhor hooliganism and racist b.s. which seems to mar the sport. Watching drunken English soccer fans for example is embarrassing not just for my heritage, but for the human race.

These two things remind me of why and when I stopped following sports. I was an Expos fan from their birth til their death. They were only a contender once, but that never deterred me from following them fervently. The team was sold to some “flippers” who gave zero shits about baseball, or Montreal. Jeffrey Loria and Claude Brochu whittled away at the talent and the support  until they finally sold the team to Washington D.C. 

The death knell for me was when the English language radio no longer had Dave Van Horne or Duke Snyder…. I listened in French often, but I preferred the colour commentary of Duke ’n Dave.  I stopped reading the sports in the paper and stopped any watching or listening. Period.

I am not sad that I invested my time last month. I truly enjoyed watching the games I did, win or lose. I just hate the Star maker machinery of the mainstream world. Greatness can’t be bought, it has to be earned. 

I have my life back. Bravo to our scrappy talented team. Hold your heads high!

Standing Up

When I was in the third grade I “failed” music. It probably wasn’t a “fail” per se, but it was a capital U on my report card. Not an E for excellence, a VG for Very Good or a G for merely good but a U which stood for “Unsatisfactory”.

This requires some explanation on my part.

It was 1964. I had just turned nine years old in February. I sang in a church choir. Not yet the more serious Cathedral choir which came the next year, but I could always sing, and sing I would. Whenever I was happy. I was a happy child for the most part. I still am happy and I still sing. I don’t have to be happy to sing now, but it will still make me happy. 

Music in school consisted of designating a small period of time each week to sing easy hymns like “This Is My Father’s World” and “Jesus Loves Me This I Know” or folk songs like “Un Canadien Errant” or “Land of the Silver Birch”. We also learned patriotic songs: “God Save The Queen”, “The Maple Leaf Forever” and “O Canada”. The School I attended was part of the Protestant School Board and the kids were mostly white. This was before the province switched to linguistic boards. Protestant meant “not Catholic” or “Les Autres”. My Jewish classmates sang “Jesus Loves Me” without balking…. I don’t recall if there were any children of other faiths, but they would have been lumped in with us as well.

I usually excelled at music because I was enthusiastic and sang in tune. I didn’t excel at much else except making my friends laugh at my hijinks. I had not yet had the diagnosis of “dyslexia” that I would carry with me after testing in grade four. I made an adequate bench warmer in sports and could not figure out my dominant side. I write left handed, but the testing called me “ambidextrous”. “A-dextrous” would have been a more accurate description. Our jock neighbour who lived next door had a derogatory nickname for everyone he encountered. Mine was “spaz” as in “spastic”. His nickname should have been “bully” or “asshole” which aren’t necessarily exclusive.

In grade 3, the teacher (a generalist-not a music teacher) decided we should sing “Onward Christian Soldiers”. Here is where the trouble started. I was singing along with the class, proud to be loud and in tune and leading. I sang a line in particular that bothered me. “Marching as to war”. This struck me as not something I could support. I had a strong Christian background and knew the Ten Commandments by heart. I knew that killing was wrong. My first awareness of news and current events had arrived several months before on November 22,1963. I then became exposed to and aware of the war in Southeast Asia and saw the bodybags on the news. Looked wrong to me even at such a young age.

The teacher noticed that the hymn was not unfolding as it should and saw that I wasn’t singing. She ordered(not asked) me to sing and I refused. I told her I didn’t like the song because it promoted war. I was sent to the corner. I know now that “as to” is two prepositions together meaning “as if” and is an imaginary comparison, a simile. The song did not mean “marching to war”, but following with the determination and discipline of the military. She could have explained that to me and it might have been win/win.

The whole idea of Christian Soldiers was/is confusing. Protestants and Catholics were killing each other in Northern Ireland, the Nazis as well were ostensibly Christian but doing decidedly un righteous things. 

I hadn’t yet discovered Bob Dylan or his song of ascerbic irony “With God On Our Side”. I was just trying to make sense of things. My religious upbringing at home was making me an idealist and it flew in the face of senseless authority. I dug it when Jesus overturned the tables at the temple. Surely Goodness and Righteousness shall follow me all the days of my life.

Having grown into a life where music plays a defining and central part  and from which I have made my livelihood, performing, teaching and writing, I look back on this event and wear the badge of “Unsatisfactory” with honour. I don’t know where I got this rebellious streak, but I have had to stand up against other teachers, administrators and school boards and parents with their skewed and fearful versions of reality and defend my choices of my reality with conviction and honesty. Also able to promptly admit when I was wrong.

 “Truth and Beauty” to quote Bill Evans. It is in my music, my teaching,my writing, my love, and a pretty good raisin d’être.

Synesthesia

Watermelon season is upon us. It often comes up in my teaching that we categorize things and put them in songs. I like to use music to reach kids on several levels: cerebral, emotional, visceral and olfactory. It is a multi-sensory approach to teaching, storing information in different parts of the brain, a sort of manufactured Synesthesia. Synesthesia can be: hearing colour, seeing sound, tasting emotion etc. My eldest daughter, for example, can see colours as numbers.

One of the things we categorize with young children is “favourite desserts” (primary motivators). I think that watermelon is, if not my favourite dessert, it is at least my favourite fruit and my favourite healthy dessert. Several years back I had a Kindergarten class sing “Watermelon Man” (J’aime le Melon d’eau) by Herbie Hancock (but the Mongo Santamaria version). I put on my helmet as a secret surprise when they were on stage ready to perform.

We had friends over yesterday for an afternoon of camaraderie and music in the garden. We served frozen grapes and fresh strawberries and watermelon ( along with chips and veggies and hummous etc.). Lovely to see friends as we emerge from a year and a half of strict isolation. We were a bit rusty on the music side… but fun and contentment was had by all.

I woke up this morning thinking about watermelon and an incident that happened to me about thirty years ago. I was at a similar party at a couple’s home in the plateau area of Montreal. I had known John for a decade or so, and Adele was a new friend to me, but she knew my girlfriend well. We were all very comfortable around each other. I remember the house and their sweet little girls Camille and Sabine. Those girls were two of the reasons I decided to become a father myself.

The incident was an embarrassing one. At least it would have been if it hadn’t been so hilarious. Adele was being the hostess and was passing around hors d’oeuvre on a platter and had a bowl of sliced up watermelon in the other. I blurted out “I love diarrhea!” and Adele immediately cracked up, doubled over laughing. I apologized exclaiming that I had meant to say “I love watermelon, but it gives me diarrhea!” which in retrospect seems like too much information in the first place. Adele went around telling people who hadn’t been in the room of my verbal faux pas, and suddenly the party came alive.

My constitution has changed and I seldom get gastro-intestinal issues with watermelon anymore. I have some cut up in the fridge and thinking about it made me think about this story this morning. I am still in touch with John and Adele though they are no longer together. I see tidbits from their girls who are now vibrant young women and it was a gift to think of them this morning via this silly little story.

  • Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which information meant to stimulate one of your senses stimulates several of your senses. People who have synesthesia are called synesthetes.
  • The word “synesthesia” comes from the Greek words: “synth” (which means “together”) and “ethesia” (which means “perception). Synesthetes can often “see” music as colors when they hear it, and “taste” textures like “round” or “pointy” when they eat foods.
Silly video

Remembering my friend Charlie Biddle

I met a man when I was 21 who was to become a good friend; a roommate; and a mentor. It was the year 1977. I had hitchhiked to a little town called Val David which is in the Laurentian mountains north of Montreal and around 18 km from my home in St. Sauveur-des-Monts. I had gone there to buy some hashish from a shady acquaintance that my friend Stu had introduced me to. After our transaction, I chanced upon some music wafting through an open door in a rustic ramshackle building called “Le Bistro d’la Butte” in Val David, Quebec. La Butte à Mathieu was a famous “Boite à Chansons” where many of the largest acts in Quebecois music performed. Le Bistro was an adjunct building much smaller. I guesstimate it could probably hold 50-60 patrons.

I peeked in the door and there was Nelson Symonds (guitar) and Charlie Biddle (upright bass) playing their hearts out even though there was no one in the audience. I knew almost immediately that the passion and authenticity of expression in this kind of music was for me, and that I had to find out more about it. Charlie gestured to me to come in and I entered, but embarassedly explained that I didn’t have any money (I left out the part that I had just spent it on dope). He said come in anyways and his wife Connie offered me some fried chicken…. Thus started my friendship with Charlie.

I was a bedroom guitar player at the time. I learned songs by Bob Dylan; Peter, Paul and Mary; Paul Simon; Cat Stevens; etc. but this jazz music was something new. I recognized the tune they were playing from my dad’s record collection. Pretty sure it was “Night And Day” by Cole Porter. I was fascinated. It had (seemingly) a zillion chords and was way beyond my skill set. My casual conversation with Nelson and Charlie during the “break” was the start of my upward climb into music that I have embraced with religious fervor.

I was working my summer job with a landscaper company and several of the guys were jazz buffs. I started to tag along with them on excursions to “The Rising Sun” in Montreal to see the cream of international Jazz stars pretty well every week-end. I saw and heard Dizzy Gillespie (the guitarist was Al Gafa), Dexter Gordon, Kenny Burrell, etc. I started to read Downbeat from cover to cover and buy albums based on the information there. Weather Report, Chick Corea, Oscar Peterson and Joe Pass. Joe Pass’ music in particular made an impact on me and I bought a music book of transcriptions that I couldn’t yet read, but I learned some of the chord shapes and started to introduce them into my playing. I also purchased a book from “International Music Store” on Ste. Catherine Street by Mickey Baker called Mickey Baker’s Complete Course in Jazz Guitar Book one). The hours I struggled with that one…

I went to see Charlie and Nelson as often as I could that summer and continued to absorb their music and jovial friendship. On July 26th,1977 Charlie turned 51 and I was 21. At his birthday gig I jokingly told him he was “one short of a full deck”. He howled with laughter and the habit of our male put downs for each other was established.

Over the course of the summer I decided to return to school. I had been studying Philosophy in the Maritimes but wanted to be in Montreal. I started night courses at Concordia University and found part-time employment as a Parking lot attendant. My favourite time at that job was after the main attendant left and I changed the music in the booth to Radio-Canada which is the french radio station of the CBC where there was a very good Jazz show. The host was very relaxed and soothing and my music education and my French improved immensely. Paycheques were spent mostly on records.

After a few months of almost daily commuting via Voyageur bus from St. Sauveur to Montreal for classes and my job, I was getting pretty tired. If the walkman had been invented, it would have been an easier commute. During that winter Charlie started to commute as well. He was playing a bar on Crescent Street around the corner from the Hall building of Concordia and we started to sometimes commute together. After my night class I’d wait until his last set was over and I’d drive him in his huge boat of a station wagon as far as St. Sauveur and he would continue on to his home and family. After a bit of this grind, he asked me if I’d like to share an apartment on Bishop Street that he had found. It was near the Annex, Cheap Thrills and Concordia and was very cheap, so I agreed. I had bought a VW hatchback from my brother to help me manage my time better between work and school and my home up north..

Living with Charlie was an education. We hung out a lot! We were only on Bishop Street for a short time before Charlie told me we were going to move. He had found a “loft” in Old Montreal that was a block West of a famous Jazz club on St. Paul St. There was no rent!!!!!! The idea was to stay there until the bottom two floors were to be converted into a flagship Jazz club. We had the whole place to ourselves, but lived on the top floor. I learned how to mop! A few drawbacks to the place…. hot water tank needed fixing, so showers were not hot…. the shower stall was one floor down. The heating system was shared by several office buildings and was minimal on weekends and holidays….. other than that it was great! My record collection was expanding and I had a good sound system, so when I was home and not practicing, I would listen to great Jazz. Charlie and I hung out a lot. He was a great story teller. One day I will try and recall some of his better ones and the outrageous exaggerations that never seemed to change. I can still conjure up his voice and facial expressions in my mind’s eye and ear.

Quite often during this time we would both be between paycheques or I’d be out of work and we had not much between us. On more than one occasion I’d be broke and Charlie might have 5 bucks and would say “Let’s go get breakfast”. There was a Deli on Ste. Catherine that had a breakfast special. We’d come out of there and be stuffed. He said there was no point to not eat like a king even when things were tight. He also introduced me to a place that he called “Sausageville” which was a Delicatessen on the Main where you could get a sausage sandwich and a drink (Cott Black Cherry) and sometimes splurge the extra dime for a pickle. I am pretty sure that it was either just under or just over a dollar for the drink and sandwich.

I continued to go there for decades and introduced my friends and my younger brother to “Sausageville”. As an adult, my brother actually bought sausage sandwiches and drinks for himself and his girlfriend and drove up to the top of Mount Royal and proposed to her over their picnic. When Hoffner’s closed, I went down the street to the competition “Slovenia Deli”, but it wasn’t quite the same. I went without for years, but by chance found another Slovenia sausage place on the North Main…. near Beaubien Street. I would often detour there just to have a hot sausage.

Now I live in a suburb about twenty Kilometres away and one day I was craving a sausage. I noticed that in my neighbourhood was a Deli called La Bernoise that I had always meant to try. I went in and they had the sausages that I was used to, but didn’t make sandwiches. I said to the lady behind the case that I usually go to Slovenia for my hot sausage sandwiches. She told me that Slovenia had just gone out of business, but that La Bernoise was their supplier. I bought a dozen. They have a butcher’s dozen: 13 for 12. I keep a supply on hand in the freezer at all times. I am mostly vegetarian, but in denial about sausages.

Enough about food, though. Charlie taught me how to live royally without very much money. Cheap restos, shopping at the Sally Ann, where to find the free parking spots. He taught me through his example that sometimes bills have to wait. He always paid them, but not always “on time”. Sometimes needed a prompt. The Hussier (bailiff) called…..I’d better get on it. He also showed me through his generosity, to be kind. If you have, share, if you don’t have, ask. As he grew more successful in the city, he moved his four kids and Connie down to the city part-time. Sometimes I’d get home to the loft and it would be teeming with the youthful exuberance that children bring. I loved those kids and Connie, but usually their arrival dovetailed into my going up north to my parents house. Biddle’s golden rule was NO NOISE DURING DADDY’S NAP. Charlie took a nap every day in the late afternoon. He played music til the wee hours and got up with the kids, but all was OK if the nap was undisturbed. I acquired the same habit which I try to do every day.

One night, I was all alone at the loft. Practicing and/or reading and/or listening to music. I fell asleep in my bedroom which was a cordoned off area of a huge space. Charlie had the other room away from the Big Space and near the bathroom and kitchenette. He was on a gig. I fell asleep with my guitar in my hands. I was awoken by the sound of boots on the floor on the other side of my bed. I sat up to see two guys with hand guns drawn who said “Who the fuck are you?” I said I lived there. They were looking for the owner who had lent us this space and they looked like they were “collecting”. I said he wasn’t there and I hardly ever saw him at all. The men stomped out and when Charlie got home I told him what had transpired. He replied… “OK we’re moving!”.

The next day he found a multi level rental on Rue Notre Dame above a specialized hardware store. The area was the eastern fringes of the traditionally predominately black neighbourhood housing railway porters called Little Burgundy. At that time we moved in, rue Notre Dame looked on to what had been the Turcot Yards which used to be the railway yards for both Windsor station and Central station. It was a vast expanse of weeds and old asphalt and detritus from having served the city for a century. It is now built up into condos and is a very different neighbourhood.

On Notre Dame St. I had my own apartment on the left side of the stairs and Charlie had two floors on the right side. we had an adjoining back “deck” palettes strung together on the roof of a neighbouring workshop/garage. Seeing as I had to now pay rent again, I walked down the street and I asked at the various businesses if they needed any part-time help? One actually did. It was a start-up courrier company that needed an evening person to sort and record the manifest. The secretary liked my spirit and the fact that I was literate and I got hired. It fit in well with my schooling, so after the owner interviewed me, I was hired.

With the change of address, my new job and Charlie’s family there all the time now, the dynamic shifted, but I used to love hanging out and watching tv with them and was often over there for dinner. We would get into huge loud and funny disagreements about all sorts of stuff…. I miss that. One of us would say something outrageous just to get the other one going. Thinking back fondly of those times.

It was around this time that Charlie partnered up with a successful businessman (George D.) and opened up a jazz club on Aylmer Street. Named Biddles Jazz and Ribs. This venture became very successful and attracted a wealthier crowd than I was used to hanging out with. Most Jazz clubs in the city could service students and marginalized people. Nelson Symonds’ cousin Ivan Symonds had Le Mixeur before he opened up Le Jazz Bar. Very different. Sort of like the difference between uptown clubs in New York and Greenwich Village clubs back in the day. Nowadays it all costs a fortune.

Ivan Symonds club. Note the “translation” of Jam Sessions…lol

I saw Charlie less, mostly it was if I went out to catch him play at the club where he was “on”. I went over to his place less as we both got busier, but every time we did see each other it was a lovely homecoming. Charlie and Oliver Jones also played a cocktail gig at The Queen Elizabeth Hotel. I sometimes went there to see him and my dad went there after his work and kill time before catching a suburban train.

We saw each other less as my studies and work and girlfriends took over and Charlie got more opportunity to be in films and better gigs etc.

My four years in Winnipeg really put time and distance between us. I came back to Montreal to get married and Charlie was a guest. He pulled me aside as was walking down the aisle and whispered “so long, sucker!” in my ear. We would see each other only sparingly as my kids became focal points and I had many weekend gigs out of town and I didn’t get out much to listen to Jazz during the week. I took my girls to see Charlie a few times, but the dynamic had shifted.

My next encounter with him was a shock. My brother-in-law had been working at Biddles as a waiter and he was visiting his sister and me and just casually asked if I had heard that Charlie was in the hospital? All the blood rushed out of my face as I tried to absorb this news that my friend, tower of strength and hero was suffering. I sped over to St. Mary’s hospital and found the ward where outside the door a nurse informed me that “only family is allowed to visit”. Constance heard my voice through the door and emerged and said “It’s OK, Ian is family!” A wave of pride and shame came over me. Proud to be considered family, but ashamed at how absent a son I had been.

I entered the room and Connie said “Look Charlie, you have a visitor!” “Hey Eee” said Charlie from his hospital bed. Charlie is one of only four people I have known who shortened my name to “Eee”. They are all dear to me (My “Aunt” Hemmy, my sister, my present wife Sharon and Charlie).

Connie took some time for herself and Charlie and I had a lovely visit albeit a sad one. We tried to keep each other laughing like usual, but Charlie grew tired and I knew I should go. Judging from his diminished frame and weakness I sensed it might be the last time I’d see Charlie. I said “I’m going to give you a hug, so don’t play with my tits!” I hugged him and he pinched my “tits”.

He died a few months later at home. The same address on Notre Dame street where we had shared so much time together.

Loving him will never come to an end.

Charlie and me at my first wedding.
Gift from my friend Lyle Robinson
portrait of Charlie by Linda Rutenberg on the wall beside my piano