Pat Blythe – All That Jazz VII – The Canadian Connection

Jazz was birthed in the U.S. but it didn’t take long to head north to Canada. It was first introduced to Canadian audiences in 1914, when a New Orleans band The Original Creole Orchestra performed a matinee gig at the Pantages Playhouse Theatre in Winnipeg. The stop was part of their western Canada tour. The band of six musicians included one of jazz’s early masters, cornettist Freddie Keppard. Jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton performed in Vancouver cabarets from 1919 to 1921. Canada and the U.S. share the longest land border in the world so it was no surprise Canada quickly became the first country outside the U.S. to cultivate its own jazz scene.  “In Canada, as elsewhere, musicians took to jazz and made it their own, although not before they’d had the benefit of good tutelage from touring U.S. musicians – mostly black – for whom “Canadian time,” as they called touring north of the border, was a relief from the constant racism of the U.S. and a new, quite profitable source of revenue.” – Quill & Quire

At the heart of this was the City of Montreal. Nicknamed “Harlem of the North”, both audiences and musicians flocked to this small island in the St. Lawrence, creating a vibrant jazz community. By the early 1920s, pianists James “Slap Rags” White and Millard Thomas had decided to make Montreal their home “where the size and concentration of the city’s black population in St-Henri led to the development of a thriving entertainment scene of the next 35 years.” – Canadian Encyclopedia

Little Burgundy

La Petite-Bourgogne, or Little Burgundy as it is now called, is considered the “spiritual home of Canadian jazz” and is associated with many influential Canadian jazz musicians. Over the years the geography changed somewhat. Little Burgundy was originally part of the parish of Saint-Henri-des-Tannieries. It also encompassed an area bordering St-Antoine.  Many historians refer to either St-Henri or St-Antoine as the first large settlement of blacks in Montreal. They are both correct as each borders the other.

The story of jazz in Canada is also the story of Little Burgundy and the history of Montreal’s black population. Once residents of Little Burgundy, Oscar Peterson, Myron Sutton and Oliver Jones are three of the best-known names in Canadian jazz, but The Original Creole Orchestra was the beginning. Canadian musicians, like everywhere else, made jazz music their own, but with the added benefit of learning from some of the best the U.S. had to offer.

Beginning “in 1887, Little Burgundy came to acquire a unique niche as the home of Montreal’s working-class, English-speaking black community”. With the emergence of the Canadian railway, Montreal became one of the key hubs leading to a migration of hundreds of black workers, specifically to work as porters on the passenger trains. The area of Little Burgundy had easy access to both major railway stations, becoming a natural area for these men to set up homes. One caveat…..they were not allowed to bring their families north of the border. With the escalation of single men, all with disposable incomes, in a specific neighbourhood, a natural market was created for black entertainment venues. Riding the rails, these men were also instrumental in introducing jazz all across Canada and were referred to as “conduits of culture”. Little Burgundy was the perfect storm of culture, music and work that eventually grew into the Montreal jazz scene we know today.

Booze benefits

During prohibition, Montreal was one of the only places in North American where you could serve liquor. People from all over the continent headed to the Canadian “city of light” to enjoy the nightlife of booze, gambling and entertainment. The Roaring Twenties hosted the hottest music genre of the era and Montreal was in the thick of it, welcoming many world-class jazz players. Venues such as Café St-Michel and Rockhead’s Paradise (the first nightclub owned by a black person, Rufus Rockead), hosted musicians such as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Louis Armstrong. Even Frank Sinatra headlined at Chez Paree in 1953. Although these venues are now closed, Montreal’s love affair with jazz has never wavered.

The Canadian Ambassadors (left, back row) pose with entertainers and staff at the Club Montmartre, Montreal, October 6, 1937. The Canadian Ambassadors, including Steep Wade (back, third from left), were the leading black hand in Montreal for six years during the 1930s.

No stranger to the impact of rock and roll had on the jazz community, the city bounced right back with opening of the Rising Sun Celebrity Jazz Club in 1975. Taj Mahal, Buddy Guy, Art Blakey, John Lee Hooker and Dizzy Gillespie all performed there. Five years later the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal was established. The Montreal International Jazz Festival is the largest festival of its kind in the world and showcases over 3,000 musicians from 30 countries on 20 indoor and outdoor stages.

Canada’s jazz kings and queens

Canada has given birth to hundreds of jazz artists during the past 100 years. Oscar Peterson, who grew up in Little Burgundy, is probably the best known and most famous jazz musician to come from Montreal. Saxophonist Moe Koffman; trumpeter Maynard Ferguson; Toronto-born Gil Evans (“widely recognized as one of the greatest orchestrators in jazz, playing an important role in the development of cool jazz, modal jazz, free jazz and jazz fusion. He is best known for his acclaimed collaborations with Miles Davis” – Wikipedia); trumpeter and flugelhornist Guido Basso (Member of the Order of Canada); vocalists Eleanor Collins (known as the Canadian First Lady of Jazz), Carol Welsman and Diana Krall; guitarist Ed Bickert; free jazz pianist Paul Bley and bandleaders Fraser MacPherson and Rex Battle; saxophonist Mynie Sutton led the Canadian Ambassadors in Montreal; (and so many more)….all Canadian and all have achieved national or international recognition.

Clockwise – Oscar Peterson, Nat Raider, Guy Lombardo, Eleanor Collins, Paul Bley

There is so much more to Canada’s part in the history of jazz. This provides a very high-level overview of the Canadian involvement and influence in the evolution of “Canadian” jazz.  From humble beginnings in a small area of Montreal to the many jazz festivals across the country, the impact the black community of Little Burgundy had is still felt to this day.

“The community was dealt a succession of near-fatal blows through the 1960s when half the neighbourhood was bulldozed in favour of the Ville Marie Expressway and huge blocks of social housing. Renamed Little Burgundy, the neighbourhood is striving to recover from poverty, unemployment, crime, and an itinerant population. The jazz clubs and show bars are all gone. The only evidence that the neighbourhood was once the creative heart of Canada’s most vibrant music scene is a small swath of green space tucked between social housing developments, in the shadow of the massive maze of concrete overpasses” — Le Parc de Jazzmen

Look to the Rainbow – Eleanor Collins

Oscar Peterson – Live in ’63, ’64, ‘65

Oliver Jones & Friends

The Hot Tamale Man – Freddie Keppard (1926)

Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) – Duke Ellington & Ella Fitzgerald

All of Me – Billie Holiday

Footloose – Paul Bley (full album)

Swinging Shephard Blues – Moe Koffman

So What – Miles Davis & Gil Evans (1959)

It’s Not Unusual – Guido Basso (Moe Koffman, Teddy Roderman, Ed Bickert, Jimmie Dale)

The Black City Below the Hill – A History of Montreal’s Little Burgundy

The finish line….maybe

I think I’ve exhausted everyone on this particular subject. Although there is so much more I could expound on this particular subject, I will pause here. I hope you’ve enjoyed the “jazz series”…..maybe learned a little, possibly encouraged you to dig deeper, or even introduced your ears to some new music.

Jazz is quintessentially American. Born in the Deep South, the merging of two cultures, embraced by the slaves and the black community, long before classical jazz purists took it as their own. With its inexhaustible boundaries, improvisational style, creative energies and ‘anything goes’ approach, jazz has managed to seep into the notes of almost every genre of music. From acoustic to electric, instrumentally and vocally, jazz is its own distinguished art form. Big band, swing, bebop, cool, free, Latin, Afro-Cuban, gypsy, modal, smooth, fusion….jazz has it all. If you want to add a bit of je ne sais quoi to your music or your life, as the saying goes,“jazz it up!”



Pat’s column appears every Wednesday.


“Music and photography….my heart, my passions.” After an extended absence —  33 years as a consultant and design specialist in the telecommunications industry — Pat has turned her focus back to the music scene. Immersing herself in the local club circuit, attending the many diverse music festivals, listening to some great music, photographing and writing once again, she is eager to spread the word about this great Music City of ours…..Toronto.


Together for 34 years, Pat also worked alongside her late husband Christopher Blythe, The PictureTaker©, who, beginning in the early 70s, photographed much of the local talent (think Goddo, Frank Soda and the Imps, BB Gabor, the first Police Picnic, Buzzsaw, Hellfield, Shooter, The Segarini Band….) as well as national and international acts. Pat is currently making her way through 40 years of Chris’s archives, 20 of which are a photographic history of the local GTA music scene beginning in 1974. It continues to be a work in progress. Oh…..and she LOVES to dance.

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