Better late great than never

Before a sold-out crowd at Montreal's world renowned-international jazz festival in 2004, two of the world's greatest jazz pianists joined each other on stage for the first time.

Before a sold-out crowd at Montreal’s world renowned-international jazz festival in 2004, two of the world’s greatest jazz pianists joined each other on stage for the first time.

In a career spanning more than six decades, Oliver Jones had played alongside almost every jazz virtuoso the late 20th century had to offer, from Dave Brubeck to Hank Jones.

Despite himself, he still quivered with intimidation when he saw lifelong friend and idol Oscar Peterson seated only a few metres away.

“I had always jokingly told him that if we were to do anything together, to make it fair he could only use his thumbs,” he said.

More than 60 years before, both pianists had come of age in Little Burgundy, a poor black neighbourhood on Montreal’s southwest side.

In the 1930s, it was an emerging hothouse for Canadian jazz.

Six of Canada’s best jazz pianists grew up within several blocks of Jones’ childhood home.

Peterson grew up only a few doors down, his lightning-fast piano strains spilling out into the street.

Almost from birth, Jones’ own place on the piano bench seemed preordained.

When Jones’ father sat down after work to plink out a few tunes on the family piano, he would instantly be met by cries from his toddler son.

“I would scream until he picked me up on his knees, and then I would bang on the piano, and then my father eventually decided that that was enough for his studies,” said Jones.

While doing housework, Jones’ mother soon found that the best way to placate her son was to tie him to a high chair in front of the piano with a dish towel, where he would “bang away for hours.”

“My eldest sister told me that, one day while they were eating lunch, they heard me playing along to something on the radio,” said Jones.

Jones was performing publicly by the age of five. By nine years old, he had started to play clubs.

American performers, mostly from Brooklyn, held a soft spot for Jones’ childhood neighbourhood, frequently venturing over the border to pack Little Burgundy jazz clubs, like the Cafe St. Michel or Rockhead’s, Canada’s first black-owned club.

“A lot of them had grown up playing with Miles, and Thelonious Monk, so when they came up they would bring a lot of new tunes and, anytime we had an opportunity, we would join them in jam sessions,” said Jones.

By his teens, Jones was a regular at the Cafe St. Michel, wowing patrons with his piano acrobatics.

Jazz may have coursed through his neighbourhood—and his veins—but for Jones, it was soon clear that it was no way to pay the bills.

Accompanying singers and playing pop tunes, that was the way to make a living playing the piano. Jazz was a hobby, a music that lived solely in the realm of after-hours clubs and backroom jam sessions.

While Peterson ventured south to cut his teeth on the American jazz scene, Jones and others in the neighbourhood shelved their own jazz aspirations.

“We were all envious of the success of Oscar, but we definitely realized that he was the greatest Canadian jazz pianist that ever lived, and that we’ll ever see in this lifetime,” said Jones.

In 1964, Jones accepted a position in Puerto Rico, becoming musical director for Jamaican singer Kenny Hamilton. At night, he religiously frequented the motley network of Puerto Rican jazz joints.

“Probably secretly, I kept saying to myself, ‘Maybe one day I’ll get the opportunity,’” said Jones.

Opportunity finally knocked 16 years later, after Jones had returned to Montreal.

That’s when, while laid up in a hospital bed recovering from eye surgery, bassist Charles Biddle came to see him.

“He said, ‘You’ve been playing that (excuse my expression) shit pop music for such a long time and you’ve always been a jazz pianist,’” said Jones.

Jones left behind the world of commercial music, and ventured back into the smoke and noise of the jazz clubs, becoming the resident pianist at Biddle’s newly opened jazz room—aptly titled Biddle’s.

Only a trickle of regulars sustained the club in its first few weeks, and Jones suspected they were there “more to eat than to listen to music.”

In only a month, Jones began to face nightly wall-to-wall crowds.

“I kept saying, ‘Is this a dream or something? I’m actually playing jazz, and being paid and people are enjoying it,” said Jones.

“Charlie kept saying, ‘I told you so—you should have been doing this 20 years ago,’” he said.

One night, Jones’ band was fatefully approached by aspiring record producer Jim West, a man who, to Jones’ eyes, didn’t look older than 17.

“Every single night we ran into someone who was either drunk or very enthusiastic about the group and they’d start saying they knew someone who had a brother or an uncle in the music industry,” said Jones.

“Most musicians would just roll their eyes and say, ‘Yeah, here’s another one,’” he said.

But West, who was actually in his mid-20s, was dead serious. Within the year, Jones became the first artist on West’s newly-formed Justin Time record label.

As the 1980s played out, and Jones’ discography lengthened, he quickly rocketed to national, and then international prominence.

A dormant piano talent whisked into the long-coveted world of professional jazz.

After 15 albums, countless appearances in Europe, North America and Africa, a Juno award and an Order of Canada, Jones’ status as a legend of Canadian piano virtuosity has been cemented.

His trademark versatility echoes the many years he spent outside the jazz spotlight.

The pianist attempted retirement in 2000, but after images of him and Peterson sharing a stage were televised across the country, an incessantly ringing phone lured Jones back onto the touring circuit.

Even as the elder jazzman shows no signs of slowing down, Jones has already devoted himself to throwing a torch to the next generation of Canadian jazz musicians, a generation that, just like a teenage Jones plunking out boogie-woogie in a smoke-filled Montreal bar, still finds its jazz talents underappreciated.

On Tuesday night, Canadian jazz’s most famous elder has surrounded himself with the genre’s next generation of rising stars, drummer Jim Doxas and bassist Eric Lagace, two fellow Montrealers that Jones has known since before they could grow facial hair.

The Oliver Jones Trio plays the Yukon Arts Centre on Tuesday, April 7 at 8 p.m.

Contact Tristin Hopper at

tristinh@yukon-news.com