Before I resume my review of Peter Leitch's excellent memoir, Off the Books, I want to pause to remind Pepper Adams devotees that this Tuesday, September 10, marks the 27th anniversary of Pepper Adams' death. At my home, it's a day of commemoration. I light a candle in his honor and play his music.
Now to guitarist Peter Leitch, who is still very much with us, playing his New York City gig at Walkers every Sunday night.
The short middle chapter of Leitch's terrific three-part memoir discusses 1977-1982, his six-year experience living in Toronto. It functions as an intermezzo between the much larger chapters about his time in Montreal and New York. Canadian born Leitch, a keen cultural historian, felt that 1977 was a logical time to leave Montreal for Toronto.
First, the vibrant Montreal music scene was "on its last legs." Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau had been elected in 1954 on an anti-corruption platform, after coming to power as a prosecutor of organized crime (much like New York's mayor Rudolf Guiliani years later). Drapeau's reign (from 1954-1986) was notable for his mission of ridding Montreal of political corruption. Much like Chicago or Kansas City in earlier times, it was the synergy between local government, police, and organized crime that had kept jazz thriving in Montreal. Drapeau's regime slowly put an end to that.
As Leitch also points out, another seismic economic shift was already taking place that was effecting Montreal as a world class city. The St. Lawrence Seaway opened in the late 1950s, allowing raw materials and cargo of every description--that once could only be delivered to Montreal--to move past the city to other western destinations in the Great Lakes. "This had a devastating effect on industry and commerce," writes Leitch.
Further eroding the city's economic base was the Quebecois separatist movement. In the 1970s many English speaking Canadians left Montreal due to repressive laws favoring French as the dominant language, and amidst the general hoopla about transforming Quebec to a sovereign country, separate from Canada. With the political uncertainty and exodus of English-speaking residents was a huge shift of assets out of Quebec banks. Combined with the $1 billion cost overrun from Expo '67 that took the city 30 years to pay off, Montreal was in an economic tailspin that, according to Leitch, has never been overcome.
Apart from the economic and political changes, Leitch was also frustrated with the lack of musicianship. For one thing, in 1977 Montreal drummers had no sense of the jazz tradition. To make matters worse, writes Leitch, "it was hard to find a rhythm section that could play four even quarter notes in a row. If you tried to do anything subtle with the phrasing--back phrase or do anything with triplets, they just didn't get it." Not that this didn't happen in Toronto, but some of his friends, such as high school buddy Robert Walker, had already moved west to Toronto, and it was time for Leitch to advance as a player.
Toronto was a culture shock for Leitch: "Coming from a large cosmopolitan, sophisticated, and wide-open city with a bohemian spirit, I was surprised at the small town mentality and the puritan strain that seemed to run through everything." Leitch was arrested for speeding, going 36 in a 35-mile zone with Quebec license plates. The police later issued him a summons for not mowing his lawn. Unlike Montreal, buying alcohol was highly controlled by the state and getting a good meal in restaurants was almost impossible.
Not only did Toronto seem backwards, but it was a more expensive city to live in than Montreal. And, despite the golden age of Montreal's jazz scene being a thing of the past, there was still far more opportunities to play live music there than in Toronto. Nevertheless, Leitch broke into the local scene. He met bassist Neil Swainson and they worked together in tenor saxophonist Don Thompson's group.
It was Thompson (know as D.T.) that encouraged Leitch to sit in at Bourbon Street with the Al Grey-Jimmy Forrest-Don Patterson ensemble, which led to tours of the U.S.:
I was learning so much with this group. These people were masters of the
music, and masters of the road. Al and Jimmy had been with the Basie
band for years. . . . I was learning about playing good "time" at some killer
slow tempos, blending, pacing, how to build a solo, what not to play, how
to lead a band, even how to dress on the bandstand and pay attention to
one's shoes. This was the true university of jazz.
Upon his return to Toronto, despite some silly Dixieland gigs that paid the bills, Leitch started to perform with some of the better musicians, such as Phil Nimmons and Rob McConnell. He also got his first week-long gig as a leader at George's Spaghetti House, then made a recording with Oscar Peterson, subbing for Ed Bickert. Leitch worked with some of the top players coming through town too--Clark Terry (with drummer Terry Clarke), Kenny Wheeler--and he was getting gigs out of town with Milt Jackson and touring with his own group.
After meeting his future wife, Sylvia, in 1981 Leitch recorded Jump Street, his first date as a leader, with George McFetridge, Neil Swainson, and Terry Clarke. Before it was released, Leitch took a tour of England, Russia, and Lithuania with tenor saxophonist Fraser McPherson. But, after recording a duo date with McFetridge in 1982, Leitch was weary of the Toronto scene. His standing on the scene was hardly helped by dumping a beer on jazz critic Mark Miller, then trying to get him fired from the Globe and Mail by distributing a petition among musicians.
I had been thinking of making a move anyway, really since the tours with
Al Grey. I felt as if I wasn't developing musically the way I wanted to. I
knew there was a whole other level out there that I had to try to get to, not
just learn to play it, but try to get to the very essence of the music. In
Canada, the idea of playing jazz full time, actually making a living, was just
inconceivable, but I knew that somewhere people were doing it. I was
thinking about New York.
With the previous move from Montreal to Toronto, Robert Walker had preceded Leitch. Now, Walker had moved to New York. At one of Leitch's last gigs in Toronto he met Pepper Adams, who told Leitch he liked his playing. Leitch told him he was soon moving to New York and Pepper asked Leitch to contact him when he arrived. Leitch's first gig in New York was with Pepper, but more about that and Leitch's final section next week.