With his bulbous nose, stooped posture and weathered laugh, Len Dobbin, jazz broadcaster/writer/photographer/fan, cut an almost Dickensian figure. Gazette cartoonist Aislin captured it with his caricature a few years ago. It shows Dobbin wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with the upside-down Upstairs logo, saying: “Then Diz looked at my nose and said, ‘Man, let me see you blow that thing!’” The cartoon is titled: Len Dobbin, Montreal’s Mr. Jazz.
I was first introduced to Len Dobbin, “friend to jazz” as it said on his business card, sometime in the mid-80s. Dobbin worked for CJFM, where he hosted the Sunday evening jazz programme, Jazz 96. At the time he was still writing a column for the Gazette, which served as an excellent tip sheet for fans and musicians alike.
Indeed Dobbin was known to countless musicians, from here and away, and was a friend to many, including pianist Paul “Buzzy” Bley and vocalist Sheila Jordan. Baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams, for one, benefitted from this jazz geek’s generosity. Dobbin persuaded the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal to present what turned out to be Pepper Adams’ farewell concert in 1986. Adams showed his appreciation of this autodidact accountant by penning a piece in his honour, joining at least four others who wrote a tune for him, including pianist Oliver Jones whose “Len’s Den” became the theme of the weekly show, Dobbin’s Den, on CKUT Radio McGill, where Dobbin returned after losing the Jazz 96 gig. He eventually clocked in 736 editions of Dobbin’s Den.
Dobbin also wrote about the Montreal scene for Coda and other publications. In the mid-nineties, as the English language editor of the Jazz Montreal website, I found his compacted prose a challenge to edit. More chronicler than critic, Dobbin had an encyclopedic knowledge, an obsessive sense of detail, but most importantly, big ears. And he was always willing to share his knowledge. When he started working as a researcher for Dorothée Berryman at Radio Canada, he was surprised to get a cheque, for he would have done it for nothing. When he asked Berryman what the money was for, she answered that it was for the research work. When he asked if the money was for a month, she said, “No, it’s for a week.”
Dobbin often had a mischievous smile and was always ready with a joke. My favourite was his one about composer John Cage, who, in the joke, sends his demo tape to the head of A&R at Columbia Records in New York. He waits a couple of weeks, then calls to ask if they had listened to his tape. The A&R guy says, “Yeah, I loved it. You know that tune 4’33”? Just cut it back to three minutes and we got a hit!”
My favourite memory of Len, though, has to be about flying to Toronto with him for a Blue Note double launch. A limo picked us up, but the most amazing part was that this was Dobbin’s first flight. He would have been in his early fifties, but he acted just like a kid.
There was always something of the kid in Len Dobbin. There’s a photo of him, circa 1952, in John Gilmore’s Swinging in Paradise: The Story of Jazz in Montreal (Vehicule Press). With some fellow members of the Emanon Jazz Society, Len is meeting Stan Kenton. He has a grin on his face and looks as though he’s about to pull a practical joke.
Len Dobbin died on July 9. He was 74. There will be a memorial on Sunday August 9 starting at 11 a.m. at l’Astral (305 Ste-Catherine East), and Upstairs (1254 Mackay) will have a week-long celebration come next February 23, Dobbin’s birthday.