Mouldy jazz fig not ready to compost

They call his type mouldy figs. But Grant Simpson doesn’t look too fusty. Walking into the Java Connection yesterday, the tall, lean,…

They call his type mouldy figs.

But Grant Simpson doesn’t look too fusty.

Walking into the Java Connection yesterday, the tall, lean, 47-year-old pianist was greeted by the staff.

“Ask to hear his song about Viagra,” gibed one of the baristas.

Simpson just grinned.

The well-known stride pianist, Music Yukon project manager and co-owner of the summer vaudeville act Frantic Follies plans to enter the recording studio at the end of the month with his old-school jazz band, New Orleans North.

“We play hip ragtime,” said Simpson.

“But we’re the only people who think it’s hip.”

The sole Yukoner in the band, Simpson met trumpet player Alan Matheson at the Rotary Jazz Festival four years ago. Up from Vancouver, Matheson was one of the adjudicators.

“He asked me to play with him during the final concert,” said Simpson.

“But I am always very apologetic for my style. Most jazz musicians play modern jazz, but I never have.”

While studying jazz at Malaspina University-College in Nanaimo, BC, Simpson’s peers and teachers always tried to make him more hip, he said.

But it didn’t stick. Simpson kept on playing the 1920s stride piano he loved.

As it turned out, Matheson was a kindred mouldy fig.

“We started playing together and it was an instant fit,” said Simpson.

“We both knew the tunes; we never had to talk about endings or intros, we just played together — it was so nice.”

When musicians like the same styles, they know where the other person is going, he said.

“Not only that, we shared the same philosophy on music, gigs and life in general.”

Matheson wanted Simpson to meet another Vancouver jazz great, Lloyd Arntzen.

A tall, elegant clarinet player in his late 70s, Arntzen quickly became the third musty fig.

“When we first got together, Lloyd told me, ‘I’ve waited all my life for someone like you to come along — not only can you play the stuff, you love playing the stuff,’” said Simpson.

“And this is why the band is doing well, because we’re putting the fun back into quality jazz.”

New Orleans North performs the big band, stride favourites that were popular before the Second World War.

“After the war, musicians at the forefront of the movement decided they didn’t want to play music for the masses,” said Simpson.

“And people, like my mom, began to say, ‘That doesn’t sound like music to me anymore.’

“But before, jazz was everywhere; the world was just saturated with it as a popular music in the 1920s and ‘30s, then in the ‘40s the split was made and you made a choice then, you either liked jazz or you didn’t.”

Simpson finds the modern jazz that began after the split far too intellectual.

“It bores me,” he said. “I love the old 1920s jazz because it swings like mad; I love the beat and I love the melody and lyrics.”

Given its musical bent, New Orleans North plays to a largely aging crowd.

But there has been some interest by younger generations recently, said Simpson.

While having coffee with his longtime pupil and friend Caroline Drury in Vancouver recently, Simpson was approached by a young man.

“Hey, you’re that great stride pianist,” said the guy, much to Simpson’s amazement.

There are certainly people who make the blanket statement, “I don’t like jazz,” said Simpson.

“And my sister was one of these people.

“But this old ragtime jazz has such a solid wonderful style that’s very accessible, and you can hear the melody.”

Since he was 13, Simpson knew he wanted to play stride piano.

“Both my grandmothers were parlour pianists, playing the tunes of the day before radio took over,” he said.

“And every Christmas I would ask for a different musical instrument, so my bedroom walls were crammed with banjos and mandolins hanging all over the place.”

Simpson became a solo performer in his late teens, and spent almost half a decade playing various house gigs, including three years at a restaurant in Nanaimo, BC, where he grew up.

In the ‘80s, he started spending his summers in Whitehorse playing for Frantic Follies and his winters playing on cruise ships.

Then, in ’89, he moved North permanently. Five years later, he became co-owner of the Follies.

“I love the Follies,” he said.

“Where else could you play vaudeville and write funny songs?”

He is also hoping to add some funny songs to New Orleans North’s repertoire.

And this is where Viagra comes in.

Simpson has written a song about the drug and he wants Arntzen to sing it.

“It’s not an autobiographical song,” he said quickly.

“And it’s probably the last thing Lloyd needs; he is quite an active guy, but it would be funny and good for the band.”

Listening to a rough version on Simpson’s MP3 player, the chorus jumped out — “I’m going to get me some Viagra and book a room down in Niagara.”

Yup, Arntzen probably won’t want to sing it. But Simpson thinks it’ll sell CDs.

“We’ve got great gigs coming up and we sell lots of product,” he said.

In fact, the band’s need for promotional product was the impetus for the new CD it will record at Bob Hamilton’s Old Crow Recording Studio in the next few weeks, thanks to a grant from the Yukon Film and Sound Commission.

“On the last tour, I sold out of CDs within the first two days,” said Simpson.

“And this is the only real revenue we get, because fees for festivals are minimal.”

This summer New Orleans North will be hitting the BC festival circuit.

The band is planning a Yukon CD release concert in the fall.