(l-r) Tom Upjohn, Emily Steinwall,Virginia Frigualt-MacDonald, J.P. Saxe, Anwar Knight, TJ Whitlaw, Larnell Lewis
(l-r) Tom Upjohn, Emily Steinwall,Virginia Frigualt-MacDonald, J.P. Saxe, Anwar Knight, TJ Whitlaw, Larnell Lewis

They Were Our Voices

The accompanying photo dates to July 23, 2013. The significance of this? The talented people in the photo. On the far right, drum sensation and Brampton, Ontario’s Larnell Lewis. Seven and a half years after, Lewis is now deemed one of the best players on planet earth with two Grammy Awards in the bag - 2014, Snarky Puppy’s We Like It Here for Best Contemporary Instrumental and again with Snarky Puppy in 2016, Culcha Vulcha, in the same category.

Standing in the middle, singer-songwriter, then 19-year-old J.P. Saxe, getting a second opportunity showcasing his abilities at the 25th anniversary of the Beaches International Jazz Festival. Roll ahead to the year 2021 and Saxe is up for Song of the Year at the 63rd edition of the Grammys with If the World Was Ending, co-written with girlfriend Julia Michaels.

Standing between Saxe and Lewis – CTV weather anchor Anwar Knight, a frequent supporter, community cheerleader, and on-air presence.  When not standing in tall grass, marshes, in amongst aspiring musicians, Anwar is linked to several charities; the Lymphoma Foundation Canada, where he is a board member, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada, Canadian Cancer Society, and Breakfast for Learning. In 2010, Anwar was diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma. His blog, Anwar’s Journey: The hodgepodge of an optimist, recounted his road to healing while helping launch a new support initiative.

You must wonder why I’m spotlighting a weather specialist? Knight and fellow weather anchor Tom Brown were recently axed by Bell Media in a move that was seen by many as callous and further distancing the Bell empire from the roots and soul of our communities – especially the young.

Brown for his part was known for his robust efforts on behalf of charities especially the 25-year campaign, Toy Mountain, gathering toys for thousands of children and teens each Christmas. The outreach was beyond comparison and Brown’s drive, dedication and infectious personality gift-wrapped the city in one big holiday embrace. I watched Brown like most students of broadcasting and the man’s delivery was flawless and near perfection.

As the Knights and Browns are vanquished an additional direct connection with our community is severed. Most news shows begin the broadcast with death, followed by despair, then topped off with an extra shot of fear before weather and sports. It’s those paused moments we breathe a sigh of relief and in need of a relatable human experience. A bit of sunshine dropped into our laps.

It took my wife Kristine years to get over the thumping of her beloved weatherman Harold Hossein, a Citytv guest in our house a good 17 years. Any attempt at shifting channels, Kristine would rip the remote from my hands and then remind me the opposition are imposters and never meant to inhabit the throne of Zeus, Thor, Ukko, Tezatipoca, Yu Shi, Chaac, Indra or Hossein.

A decade later I’d wander in just past noon and my hushed partner would be fixated on CTV’s Anwar Knight as he walked amongst food trucks sampling the goods, dodging stricken tree branches, and wiping sweat from his brow and say, “Anwar declares ominous weather patterns are forming just west of the GTA of which you should be aware. Don’t ride your bike.” I used to laugh it off until I realized how connected Anwar, Brown, Hossein, and others were to the heart and soul of our community. You see, as big media all but divests and recuses itself from communities so goes the entry exposure for future bright lights. As I said, entry exposure.

Over the past fifteen years, the opportunities for introducing and promoting young artists has become the responsibility of the artists themselves. Write your own story, finance, plaster across the city, collect emails, call, beg, barter, do whatever to draw attention. Those hours devoted to perfecting your craft have been subdivided between self-promotion, the business of music, and is further diminished. It’s exhausting and at times invasive.

Big media has become all but inaccessible, yet small media was mostly possible. That’s why a J.P. Saxe and a Larnell Lewis took advantage of that noontime hit and stood around awaiting Anwar’s brief weather interlude to pick up a bit of face time and put a few bars of a song in play. Later in the day, you’d hear from friends and relatives who saw and heard and rooted for you. You’d created a buzz and the public had a small glimpse into that promise within you. I know all about this from 30 years working with the publicity team of the Beaches International Jazz Festival – the number of small entry-level hits that were available and the impact that had and the importance of always taking advantage. J.P. and Larnell got it!

The same would happen with 680 News/CFRB and entertainment producer and reporter, Gloria Martin. Gloria and I would meet backstage and perform hourly updates. Pull a musician aside so Gloria could briefly interview and promote to an audience of hundreds of thousands. Gloria’s co-partner Rudy Blair would be on site with a video camera, talking up the musicians and music and constantly updating, editing clips, and posting. All the exposure was immediate and the foundation for many an aspiring artist’s futures and talked about from one end of the city to the other.

I always point back to the loss of community supporter Citytv’s Lance Chilton who appeared on the channel from 1985 -1997 with City Magazine, Toronto Rocks, and the nightly news as an omen. Lance made the rounds and was responsible for elevating the sounds and players originating from Toronto’s growing Latino community. It was the combination of the Toronto Star’s jazz critic, the late Geoff Chapman and Chilton that kept jazz, fusion jazz, Latin jazz in the entertainment pages and on the air with daily writes and nightly live hits from the Rex Jazz Bar or Top of the Senator.

Those were exciting times. Others like Michael Williams, with Soul in The City, RapCity at Much Music, Errol Nazareth at the Toronto Sun, NOW Magazine, Eye Weekly, Daniel Calderon (DJs, dance, reggae) – hip hop, rap, soul, funk, and reggae stories in prime time. Radio stations CKLN, CIUT and CHRY-FM.

Nazareth, for all his battles in promoting local artists, has succeeded in keeping the small stories alive at CBC radio – Big City, Small World and his most recent radio entry, Frequencies. Ken Stowar, PD at CIUT 89.5 FM, works tirelessly on behalf of the community and the radio programming is nothing less than stellar.

The abundance of information available about an artist on the many social media platforms in no way garners the same impact as a visual or audio hit on mainstream television or radio. You can argue the number of streams and plays as they tally in the millions but without that visual thread, an artist has difficulty crossing over into the money side of the business. Streams don’t pay. Look at your recent SOCAN disbursement.

I’m hopeful that as the curtain eventually collapses on this horrific pandemic, the desire to frequent clubs, festivals and concert halls will only grow. Like many of you, occasionally I drag out an old hard drive and sort through the many images and feel both elation and sadness. I see the players, hear the music and bask in the sunlight of that moment. Now more than ever, that moment is as vivid as the colour-drenched petals of a springtime flower. I know Gloria and Rudy will be back filming and interviewing for their own enterprises and telling those small stories as well as all of those connected to community radio. Let’s hope the Anwars of the world rebound and shine once again.

Leave a comment