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Getting To The Trane: Relating History and the Politics of Race and Jazz in Toronto through the Lived Experiences of 5 African Canadian Musicians

Getting To The Trane: Relating History and the Politics of Race and Jazz in Toronto through the Lived Experiences of 5 African Canadian Musicians

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Title: Getting To The Trane: Relating History and the Politics of Race and Jazz in Toronto through the Lived Experiences of 5 African Canadian Musicians
Author: Francis, Donald
Identifier: MESMP02553
Abstract: People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them
(James Baldwin 1955).

In this project, I am looking at Jazz, and its roots and history with respect to African Canadian Musicians in Toronto. My intention with this project report is to continue the process of releasing history, albeit one burdened by a (neo)colonial past and its kin and bed fellow, white privilege. Through film footage and written narrative, I hope to demonstrate that African Jazz musicians are here and always have been -- they have a voice and can speak and educate about their history and experiences as musicians in
Toronto. Their stories have not been told so what is recorded here begins the process of narrating a side of Canadian history that is often rendered invisible.

One late summer afternoon in 1996 I was presenting a concert honouring John Coltrane and his music. I offered a 19-year old "brother" a promotional invite with a sharp black and white photo of Coltrane. Considering now, I must have asked him his age. Anyhow, this young "brother" took the card and immediately asked "Who is this?" Honest enough of a question, being that most young African Canadians are not listening or for whatever the reason seemed not to have an appreciation of Jazz, so one expects and accepts a degree of unawareness as to who some of these players are. I am sure if I were quizzed then with an image of Buddy Bolden, I probably would have a similar reaction. But it wasn't a test or anything of the sort. I might say that many 19 year old African Canadians in Toronto might not know who some of these greats are, and there is a good enough reason for this.

"John Coltrane", I answered. Then he asked me another big question "What kind of music is that?" Not surprised as much with this second question, which might be logical considering the first, I said, "Jazz". Looking back, I was happy that at least questions were being asked. Asking questions beats taking the card and then tossing it later in the trash. Yet, the most surprising element of our brief conversation with this young brother was to follow: "man, that's white folk's music!"

I was tied up by this statement. I admit I was a bit confused and may have even been embarrassed. I cannot recall. The statement stuck with me for many years only again to surface in an ever more profound way when I decided to explore this history and contexts of the music in the city of Toronto. In other words, for years the memory of this statement has been at the forefront of my thoughts when considering race and Jazz in Toronto. How could this statement have been uttered in 1996 Toronto? How could this be possible? What were the conditions that gave rise to such a statement after all we claim to know about Jazz? What were the conditions of this music and the space it occupied that made this statement even possible in Toronto, the largest city in Canada, and supposedly the most "multicultural" in the world? To me, something was most certainly wrong.

How is it that after all that we think we know about the history of the music that Jazz could be considered a "white" thing by a "black" person? This young brother's statement led me to wonder if it could be that the African-ness of the music could have been lost or had disappeared so to speak. I wanted to understand the role that race may have played in the evolution of Jazz music in the city of Toronto and how this role may have produced this young man's perception.

This paper is a report on the project I have undertaken for graduate work for a Master's Degree in Environment Studies, documenting a slice of the history of African Canadian Jazz musicians in Toronto and tracing the way in which racism has affected the development of the music in the city. At another level, it is also an attempt to understand my own personal motivation behind opening and running a Jazz club and restaurant in the city for nearly 10 years, and why I felt the urge to present Jazz music
in the city for now nearly 20 years. I wanted to get a sense of the root of the music in the city and to better understand why it seemed so challenging to open and sustain an African Canadian owned and operated Jazz space in the city.

Jazz is recognized primarily as an African American art form. My enquiry aims to find out how African Canadian musicians in particular, find their connection to the music in the Toronto, and what their experiences with the music might be. I am interested in the role of white domination and Eurocentrism play in re-signifying or reshaping of the reality and historical context of Jazz in Toronto. My intention with this project is to get at the history of the music, and its intentionality -- this being as it were an instrument of liberation on a spiritual, physical and psychic level. I needed to know how different Jazz in Toronto really was as it emerged in the city and as it related to African musicians and the community here. This project is therefore based on oral accounts of the history, social context and background of African or "black" Jazz in Toronto, as well as my own experience with operating a Jazz club in the city.

The purpose of this research project was to start documenting the history of Jazz in Toronto. And the only way realistically for me to do this was to speak to the musicians themselves as it has been difficult to find any written history of African Canadian Jazz musicians and their presence in the music in Toronto. We know there are and have been players but what we don't know is the history and politics that came along with this African inspired art form we call Jazz. The musicians with whom I
spoke are, legendary drummer Archie Alleyne, singer, songwriter and producer Eric Mercury, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Terry Logan, organ and piano player Kingsley Ettienne, and and Wesley "Jaribu" Cason were a solid source of knowledge, and our conversations were extremely enlightening and informative. So I thank them tremendously. Sadly, Wesley "Jaribu" Cason passed away earlier in spring of 2014. Cason was a passionate source of knowledge, he was a musician, a librarian, a supporter of the music, and a true humanitarian. He was an African American "draft dodger" from Chicago who migrated to Toronto, pretty much by accident in 1970. He fell in love, and then fell in love again with the city as he saw it as a progressive town during that time. He had witnessed the evolution of the music in the city for over 40 years. I thank him for his friendship over the years, support, passion, honesty and insight.

Through the lived experiences of African Canadian Jazz musicians living and working in Toronto, my intention was to explore the possible contentions of space and place when speaking of the racism (albeit colour blinded) and history of Jazz in Toronto. I also explored the concepts and works of both Canadian and American scholars around issues of race and racism. This essay presents a part of what I have gathered from the interviews, and again my personal and critical insights and experience. This is only a part of a larger story and does not pretend to answer all the questions about race in Toronto but it nevertheless sheds some light on the city's Jazz heritage.

The starting point of my essay is my finding and coming into Jazz. I then present the history of Jazz in Toronto through introducing the experiences of 5 African Canadian musicians. Thirdly, I document a particular moment in Toronto's Jazz history when African Jazz and music general was most prominent as a result of the arrival of many African American players to the scene. In the following section, I discuss the feeling of loss and the dominance of white academic influence on the music itself, and how such dominance contributed to the erasure of the "source". The spirit of reclamation is discussed by the participant in a more driven and revolutionary way, which has ownership and equity as core pieces in terms of presentation. Finally, I return to the relevance and meaning of Jazz, what it stands for and comes out of...
Type: Major Project
Rights: Author owns copyright, except where explicitly noted. Please contact the author directly with licensing requests.
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/10315/30280
Citation: Major Project, Master of Environmental Studies, Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University
Date: 2014

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