Pops drove his boys to gigs the first few years. I was 16 and have no memory how I copped a $15 gig in Corydon, Indiana – the second capital of Indiana Territory in 1813, with a very popular one-armed trumpet player. I do remember weeks prior, I was immersed in the blues, having returned from studying with Oscar Peterson in his summer program, 1963 in Toronto. I asked Oscar what he listened to and he handed me two jazz piano albums, Claire Fischer - Surging Ahead and Junior Mance - Live at the Village Gate.
Once back across the border and situated behind the family, far-from-tuned spinet piano, I began to punch out a blues scale. But it took a trip across the bridge from Indiana to Kentucky and a record store on Liberty Street in Louisville, to find the Junior Mance side.
Drop the needle and my world changed. Oscar played me this slow blues from Mance’s soulful recording called “Smokey Blues.” Peterson speaks, “everything you need to know about the blues is in that track.” I took his words to heart and played over and over and over and copied lick after lick.
Meanwhile, that gig? I’m on the bandstand with my employer. Trumpet man starts calling tunes, of which I knew three or four. Rather than demean and kick my ass all over the bandstand he says, “Blues in F.” At that moment, the body settles and I exhale a big sigh of relief.
We play 15 minutes of easy-flowing blues: trumpet man blowing a raggedy New Orleans style and me stabbing between all those white notes for blues gravy.
We finish the jam and a big smile gets tossed my way. “Kid, you can play the blues. Let’s try one in B flat.” So, goes the night. We may have played “Satin Doll” or “Take the A Train” another time or two, but the engagement, in whole, was given over to the 12-bar blues.
During set breaks, the folks in the lounge patted me on the back. Night’s end, Mr. Trumpet man invites me come again. Best part, I had $15 in my pocket. How big was that? I used to dream; if I only had $10 in my pocket.
Whenever surrounded by - or working with - young aspiring artists, I always keep those first gigs in mind, that sensation – the meet and greet with heroes.
I was thinking about this over the weekend as I sat at a table in a room of talent buyers from festivals and events spread across the country, all participating in Blues Summit Eight. It was the “speed pitch:” – four minutes to convince and sell yourself sessions.
Representing the Beaches International Jazz Festival, now in year 29, is always a pleasure. We have a limited budget but plenty of venues and big crowds. My go-to point person on reviewing young talent, and talent in general is a passage lifted from an interview I did with Warner president Steve Kane.
Bill King: What qualities do you look for in a new artist?
Steve Kane: As we hear a new artist, we hear the songs. We see their work ethic and see their drive. It’s that self-assuredness.
BK: Is there a checklist?
SK: Yes, there’s a mental checklist. I’ve got to tell you at the top of this checklist – Does this artist know who they are? Do they have a sense of self? Do they have a sense of where they want their career to go? There’s a lot of manufactured pop in this world and we all live in that world and have since the days of the Bobby Rydells or Bobby Shermans. It’s always existed. Sometimes I think the modern era - the current era - takes a lot of hard knocks, as if we invented this. It’s been going on for years and there have always been those two tracks.
When we sit with a young artist we need to know how fully developed they are in their sense of self. Sometimes this takes time."
From “speed pitch” time, it was then onto mentoring sessions. The same thinking was applied.
Music is always in need of renewal. Players are always in need of renewal: far too many become stagnant and unwilling or incapable of shedding old ways and bad habits.
The pitches? “We can play anything; a blues set, a Bossa Nova set, we known Latin songs, great dance music, lots of swinging jazz...” To me, that’s not a band looking to break from the pack. That’s treading in bathwater.
Here are four newcomers who made an impression on me this past weekend. By impression I mean, how they handled themselves in one-on-one sessions. Where they go with their careers is still a matter of luck, big breaks, talent and perseverance.
Seventeen-year-old blues guitarist/vocalist Spencer MacKenzie: Spencer lives and breathes his passion. He also plays with great confidence and reverence for tradition. The Mackenzies are dedicated parents who cart Spencer from point A to B. The young prospect has a gentle, easygoing manner that comes across in crowds. Spencer took home a trophy from Maple Blues Awards night – New Artist or New Group of the Year. MacKenzie comes from the Niagara region of Ontario.
Pianist/singer Jenie Thai from Edmonton, now residing in Toronto: Jenie came with questions and loads of confidence. Living in Toronto and playing in an atmosphere of high expectations and big competition should bring even greater maturity. Here’s what we know about the fine young pianist. From her website: “In 2008, Jenie diversified her education attending Grant MacEwan's Jazz and Contemporary Music Program as a performance major. Upon graduation, Jenie was offered a part-time teaching position at Grant MacEwan University and gained acceptance into Paul McCartney’s international music school based in Liverpool. In January 2014, Jenie Thai represented Northern Alberta as a semi-finalist in the 30th International Blues Challenge held in Memphis.”
Guitarist/singer Lucas Haneman from Montreal: Lucas sat down front of me with a broad smile cutting from ear-to-ear. Lucas is sightless and at no time during the presentation did he release his grip on me: Positive, engaging, and one hell of a fine musician. More about Lucas. “While in high school, he performed in many national jazz bands and received a CBC Galaxy Rising Star Award at the 2005 Ottawa International Jazz festival. In 2010, he graduated from Concordia University with a BFA in Jazz Studies (where he received the prestigious Oscar Peterson scholarship in 2008.) “Haneman (is) a guitarist with an almost frighteningly broad stylistic reach and tone that ranged from clean and warm to distorted and aggressive.” - John Kelman, All About Jazz Magazine website.
River City Junction: Here’s a band that plays around 200 dates-a-year in the Brockville, Kingston, Smith Falls, Perth, Gananoque, Ottawa and the Montreal region. The husband-and-wife team of Jason Fryer – guitar/vocals and Caroline Addison – lead vocal/drums – with bassist Tom Joanisse exude big charm and sincerity. River City Junction is a working-class band. They borrow from the classic rock and blues songbook and stay honest to their loyal fans. It’s the spot-on lead vocals of Caroline Addison that stand out and give the band a fighting chance.