Fast forward 25 years to Halifax 1979. A music magazine ad got my attention, promoting a new study-by-mail correspondence course from Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music. The price was right so I signed up for 12 months of study. It was my first truly serious foray into jazz theory and arranging. By 1981 I knew the basics of big band jazz writing; lots of knowledge and ideas, but no experience with a live band.
In the same year my day gig took me to Ottawa, where I didn’t know a music soul in town. As luck would have it, on the Monday morning Bank Street bus commute The Ottawa Citizen article read “Mr Jazz Ottawa will play for the monthly Jazz Ottawa meeting at The Glue Pot. ” An image from the past – my past – Vern’s picture stared back at me from the page. “Jazz veteran Vernon Isaac’s big band boasts ten of Ottawa’s finest musicians.” Luck was indeed, as the song says, a lady.
Vernon’s big band was in rare shape at the JO meeting. Caledonia, Caledonia and Let the Good Times Roll were manna to my music soul – the best live jazz I’d heard since arriving in Ottawa – and made me want to write something, anything. After the set I approached Vern and used his Coq d’Or gig as an ice-breaker. We shared a raunchy laugh about Li’l Bea and the nightclub, and I got caught up on what Walter and Wray were playing. I mentioned the Berklee arranging course, and never one to miss an opportunity, in his gravelly southwestern accent, Vern said,
“We rehearse every Tuesday, at a joint down on Rideau Street. You know, right next to the theatre? Why dont’cha bring somethin’ for us to play?”
Not coincidentally, his challenge to me also meant new music for his band. So, I chose a 1954 jazz standard by saxophonist Sonny Rollins, called Airegin (Nigeria spelled backwards). Every note I wrote, and re-wrote, then rewrote the rewrite, and finally, out of ideas, I stopped procrastinating and worked up the courage to bring it to the band – or maybe I just threw in the towel. What I remember well is that I stood on the Rideau Street sidewalk, and listened for a few minutes; the sounds of Duke Ellington’s Take the A Train from inside scared the daylights out of me! This band was good! – better than I remembered from The Glue Pot. Fear of embarrassment made me turn tail and retreat, without even peeking in the door – I was petrified! “My stuff surely wasn’t good enough to be in the same book as Montreal jazz icon Vic Vogel,” I thought. So I wrote a second piece – a chart, in jazz language – a 1947 tune by the legendary Charlie Parker titled Donna Lee. I hoped that at least one of them would earn a spot in Vern’s band book. Next rehearsal I cranked up my courage to the highest notch and went inside.