Archie Alleyne
Archie Alleyne

A Conversation With... the Late Great Archie Alleyne

By Bill King

Recently, my good friend and bandstand partner drummer Archie Alleyne passed away at 82. Arch had been battling prostate cancer the past decade — a decade we rarely saw each other. Our time was 1992-2002 when it seemed we played everywhere with every singer — beginning with Liberty Silver. Archie didn’t particularly care for pushing singers along — he was a ‘schooled’ hard bop drummer intent on one day owning his own band and music. This would happen when he was nearing seventy years old and formed Kollage.

Archie wanted his band to be black. He wanted it to speak to the country and tell the story of black Canadian jazz musicians and get our attention. I was never troubled by that. I understood his frustration and purpose. He wanted role models in his band for other young aspiring black musicians. He didn’t want them totally focused south of the border where jazz originated on popular jazz faces — the ordained or familiar. There was a Canadian story that was near invisible and black Canadian heroes to be reconciled. Montreal got all the acclaim. There was Oscar Peterson, Sonny Greenwich, Ranee Lee, and Oliver Jones. Toronto?

Archie made it his mission to restore and archive the photographs and names of those who came up with him and to finally record and play the music of his choosing. With the support of JazzFM91.1 and friends, that dream was fully realized. I was fortunate to produce one album, Fine Print, as well as contribute a song, “Archie Meets Art”, to his album At This Time — originally titled “Archie Speaks.” I first recorded the song with the Rhythm Express on Beat Street. Anyone who knew Arch knew he spoke frequently and with great humour and emphasis. I took Arch aside in 2001, just as he formed Kollage, and caught this exchange. Archie taught us all that living the dream is not something solely in possession of youth — it’s there for all.

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I took this photo in the ‘90s which shows three of the great legends of piano – Ray Bryant, Junior Mance and Jay McShann with Archie Alleyne. Arch played drums on this show for TD Jazz Festival.


Bill King: You waited a long time to put Kollage together.

Archie Alleyne: I have waited years. I guess it’s been 51 years to be exact. All the time I’ve been playing and all the gigs that I’ve done, I’ve had to accompany someone else. That’s not a problem because that’s how you learn, but finally I’ve got a band where I choose the music and the concepts. I’m playing what I want and I’m having a hell of a time. I can really get into my drums more. There’s no prima donna vocalist insisting I played just brushes.

B.K: Stylistically, is there a period this band represents?

A.A: The music stems from the ‘40s, part of the swing era when Benny Carter and Art Farmer collaborated and had those wonderful little arrangements. But we also touch the hard bop era that came just after bebop.

B.K: When I hear your band, I’m hearing tunes not commonly played by most groups.

A.A: They’re not standards like, “All The Things You Ain’t.” We just finished working on an old Freddie Hubbard tune called, “Pec a Sec,” which is fantastic.

We’ve added a few little bits ourselves. We have no music or charts for the tunes. I take the record in and Dougie Richardson lifts the head. He takes Joel Josephs, the second reed man in the band, in the corner and within a half hour they’ve got it down. Michael Shand, who is my musical director, has the changes and format together. It’s easy for me; I grew up with these tunes. I just use my ears.

B.K: Dougie and you are grandpoppas in the band.

A.A: I’m the senior poppa. I was on the scene a little before Dougie during the latter part of the ‘40s on into the ‘50s.

B.K: Where did you find the younger players?

A.A: Without creating any kind of racial thing, I wanted to provide opportunities for young black musicians, so I looked at Humber College and York University. The best and the brightest young black musicians have gone on to New York and as you know, a lot of them have done extremely well.

I got lucky and caught Michael, who Don Thompson recommended, called him and put him on the roster. I had another young trumpeter lined up but he decided to get married instead — his lips are in a different place — so I went to Joel Josephs, who’s going to Humber to study with Pat LaBarbera. I also contacted bassist Ron Johnson who’s up there between Dougie and me in age. He’s solid and lays it down nice.

Michael Shand is a genius who just keeps getting better and better. I think I should do a trio album with him eventually. Joel and Michael are into the R’n’B scene as well as reggae. Both are up all night playing somewhere or the other until two in the morning.

There is calmness to the music from what the young players bring and what Doug and I can offer.  Much of what I hear out there today is too busy. The music is overwritten and there is no room for relaxing. The players have to have paper in front of them. If you miss two bars, you have to start over again.

I’m trying to keep it simple. Once they get it between the ears, they are free to deal with improvisation and feel what we feel as a group. I’m also trying to free them from the academic aspects of jazz, which I view as a hindrance, with all due respect.

B.K: This is a long-time search considering Afro-Canadian jazz musicians are a minority within a minority.

A.A: All of the black musicians in Toronto from the latter part of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s have died off. Back then, it was guys like Cy McLean and his band that did some road touring for Lifeboy Soap. People would come out of the woodwork to see a black band — it was like the circus had come to town.

During that period, there weren’t too many clubs for them to play. They played mostly in for community for dances; performing Ellington, Basie, Benny Goodman and even Guy Lombardo.

As far as the small groups were concerned, none were allowed to play the Yonge Street strip because the club owners were afraid they’d bring their black relatives into establishment and drive down the property values.

B.K: Over the years, you’ve played with many of the ‘Giants of Jazz’ — Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Benny Carter and Lester Young. When they came to town did they specifically asked for musicians from the black community be part of the backing band?

A.A: They basically knew there were few African-Canadian musicians here directly involved with the jazz situation. There were a lot of blues players, especially at 355 College Street, which was the UNIA. The United Negro Improvement Association — “The land of jive. The place for happy feet.” It was the first jam session club in the city before Clem Hamburg’s place.

When the Town Tavern opened, I took the very first house band in there with Herbie Helbig, who is long gone now, on piano; Lenny Boyd on bass, who teaches at Humber; Dave Hammer, who’s still here and one of the great under-recognized saxophone players in the country; and vocalist Anne-Marie Moss. We played a week and they liked it so much they hired us. Then they hired Norm Amadio, who was a very capable sight-reader and great accompanist.

B.K: How long did the gig last?

A.A: Norm and I stayed together for 10 years, then I stayed another three with Maury Kaye and then Wray Downes.

B.K: Looking back, any highlights come to mind?

A.A: All of the weeks. It was such an honour to work with all those musicians. Many are now dead. It was an incredible period of development coming out of the ‘40s when bebop really hit. Montréal had the clubs, but Toronto really got happening with the Town Tavern and the Colonial Tavern. I was lucky enough to be the house drummer for both. It got to the point where touring artists would specifically ask for me.

B.K: The Colonial lasted right up into the 80s.

A.A: During its heyday, it was fabulous. Shadow Wilson came up one year with Charlie Barnet. They got to customs and there was a problem with Shadow. He got held up for a couple days. His drums were set up at the club, so Goody Lichtenberg, the owner told him to call me up. I ended up working with the Barnet band, which was great. Barnet enjoyed it so much he asked me if I’d like to go on the road. I was so excited, I began checking out all the things I had to do like visas and this and that.

B.K: You had many opportunities to stretch out, why did you stay around?

A.A: I was playing the First Floor Club one night with Ron Collier’s group and Cannonball Adderley came in. He told me I should go to New York where other players were going. But I was comfortable here. I’d been to New York. And I’d also been to Chicago, Detroit, and Buffalo. But I felt very uncomfortable with the black-and-white situation there. We had the same thing going here, but not to that extreme. I didn’t want to deal with it. I kept asking myself why would I want to do that?

Toronto wasn’t exactly the greatest place, but it was sure better than that. I was working and doing all the jazz gigs. I was doing radio and television shows, commercials. Why would I want to go to New York and stand on a corner with all the other under-employed jazz musicians? Besides, how many Philly Jo Joneses do they really need down there?

I’ve thought long and hard about Archie’s years and this ‘spot on’ conversation and then took another look at the cast of greats Archie played behind. Only a rare few players will ever come close to this list:

Bobby Hackett, Red Richards, Pee Wee Russell, Lester Young, Ruby Braff, Tom Harrell, Eddie (Cleanhead) Vincent, Stan Getz, Al Cohen, Dizzy Reece, Milt Jackson, Teddy Wilson, Harry (Sweets) Edison, Charlie Barnet, Roy Eldridge ,Charlie Shavers, Buddy Defranco, Mary Lou Williams, Bud Freeman, Clark Terry, Joe Newman, Pepper Adams, Spanky Dabrest, Herb Ellis, Spanky Davis, Milt Hinton, Joe Benjamin, Scott Hamilton, Blossom Dearie, Urbie Green, Mose Allison, Marian McPartland, Johnny Griffin, Kenny Dorham, Jimmy Giuffre, Howard McGhee, Sir Charles Thompson, Red Norvo, James Moody, Red Mitchell, Jay McShann, Buck Clayton, Mat Matthews, Terry Gibbs, Kenny Burrell, Doc Cheatham, Flip Phillips, Georgie Auld, Al Grey, Milt Buckner, Kai Winding, Donald Byrd, Ben Webster, Sonny Stitt, Ray Bryant, Illinois Jacquet, Chet Baker, Bob Brookmeyer, Zoot Sims, Buddy Tate, Junior Mance, Billie Holiday, June Christy, Anita O’Day, Lurlean Hunter,  Big Joe Turner, Lorenz Alexandria, Jon Hendricks, Jimmy Witherspoon, Carol Sloane, Gloria Lynne, Steve Lawrence, Abbey Lincoln, Carmen McRae, Maxine Sullivan, Ernestine Anderson, Sylvia Simms, Jackie and Roy Kral, Nancy Wilson, Johnny Hartman, Joe Williams, Mel Torme, Mark Murphy, Jimmy Rushing, Nina Simone, the Staple Singers and Chris Conner.

That’s just the international stars. The ones here at home? Uncountable!

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