Culture & Conversation

In conversation with the greats: Oliver Jones

The final “Dialogic” session with Professor Norman Cornett took place Sunday at 1:00 in the St. James Cathedral. The guest of honour was none other than the elder statesman of Canadian jazz, Oliver Jones. For two hours, members of the general public had the unique opportunity to ask Dr. Jones questions and engage in a dialogue with the great artist. At the end of the session he graciously played a few Oscar Peterson tunes on the piano for us, while elucidating the finer points of his mentor’s style.

Dr. Jones’s relaxed and informal demeanour put everyone at ease. When a member of the group apologized for having called him Mr. Jones, instead of Dr. Jones (for it came to light that he holds no less than seven honorary doctorates), he said, “Just call me Oli!” Being part of the session was like sitting with your favourite uncle, listening to him tell all the best stories from his long, remarkable, and inspiring life. I’m pretty sure that by the end, everyone wanted to shout out, “Tell us another one!” and then go and give him a big hug — he was that lovable.

Here are some of Dr. Jones’s thoughts on his life in music.

Jazz in Montreal

Dr. Jones expressed extreme gratitude towards both Montreal and the FIJM. Next year marks the 75th year since his first concert, played when he was four (!); he is still thrilled when his home audience comes out to hear him play. He was proud to tell us that his was the first concert at this year’s festival to sell out. And although he retired in 1999, André Menard (the festival’s Artistic Director) was able to coax him back onto the stage by using Oscar Peterson as bait: the two played together in 2004 for the 25th anniversary of the festival. Oliver said to Oscar, “To make it fair you can only use your thumbs!” In his words: “I grew up with this festival.”

Classical Music

Dr. Jones pursued music studies at McGill for a time, where he was encouraged to become a classical pianist. He claims he didn’t have the discipline for classical piano, preferring the challenge presented by jazz, “to make something old sound new every single night.” When he was young, his father made him listen to and play the music of J.S. Bach, whose fugues he credits for teaching him to have hand independence, and to think of and play several different things at once. At this point we listened to an excerpt of “Up Jumped Spring,” from his album Live at Baden, and he explained that at various points during the very virtuosic solo, he is playing 4 against 7, or 5 against 4: he thanks Bach for his ability to do this. Dr. Jones has been listening to more and more classical music over the past 25 years.

The Peterson Family

The Peterson Family was crucial to Dr. Jones’s development, both musically and otherwise. Daisy Peterson (Oscar’s sister) was his first teacher, starting his formal training when he was seven. (It should be noted however that in article on Daisy, she is quoted as saying, “I hate to say I taught Oliver, . . . because whatever you gave him to do, he came back with it accomplished—he was such a gifted person.”)

Chuck Peterson (Oscar’s brother) took care of Oliver on the road, and Oscar of course was his most important mentor. It was Oscar who showed the young Oliver that it was possible to grow up black in Montreal and become a successful musician; in those days even highly educated black men ended up working for the railway as a porter, or shining shoes. But Oscar worked hard and made it, and Oliver followed in his footsteps: “I wouldn’t have become a professional jazz pianist if I hadn’t witnessed what Oscar had accomplished.” The young Oliver used to sit on the steps in front of the Peterson household, just listening to the music that floated out of the windows.

Two Anecdotes

One night when he was around 11 years old, Oliver heard a knock at the door close to midnight, after he had gone to bed. His father answered. One of the neighbourhood boys several years older than Oliver, Tommy, was requesting Oliver’s pianistic skills. He promised to have the boy home not too late. Reluctantly, the senior Mr. Jones acquiesced, and Oliver got out of bed and accompanied Tommy to a bachelor party. . . where he was expected to play piano to accompany three strippers. The strippers explained the type of music they wanted, but the boy had a hard time paying attention, as his “eyes were everywhere.” In any case he had barely finished playing the introductory tune, “Bumble Boogie,” when the sound of sirens filled the air. Someone shouted “It’s a raid!” and he was immediately whisked out the back door and returned home, $50 in hand, with the directive not to tell his dad – an order he obeyed for 15 years, after which he finally told him.

During his retirement Dr. Jones has made a point of going to speak to elementary school children about music. He was invited to do so by his nephews’ school, where everything was brand new and a lot of money had been spent on the latest equipment. Except for the piano. The piano had been brought in off the street where someone had thrown it out. The music teacher was most embarrassed to have the great Oliver Jones play on such a piano. So Dr. Jones bought the school a brand new one. And that wasn’t the only school that benefited from his largesse: he has supplied at least four elementary schools in Montreal with new pianos.

On playing the piano

Dr. Jones can’t remember a time when he didn’t play piano. His mother used to tie him to a chair and push him up to the piano when he was two years old — it was the only place he stayed happy and quiet while she did the housework. When he was young he accompanied his father’s hymn singing. He says that every piano has its own identity — he searches for different voicings on each piano he plays.

“Every night is an adventure—finding a new passage to something you’ve played 1000 times — it’s hard for me to play the same thing the same way twice. Every night I’m having a dialogue with my musicians.” Dr. Jones is constantly reading the audience, making sure they’re with him: “Everyone should feel you’re playing just for them.” He claims that playing something simple is more difficult than playing something technically challenging: “When you do something simple you have to make it come from the heart.”

Finally, echoing a sentiment expressed by other participants in the “Dialogic” sessions, the piano, he says, “has afforded me the opportunity to be myself.”

The “Dialogic” sessions with jazz musicians were held on the margins of the Montreal International Jazz Festival, and organized by Professor Norman Cornett. For more on the series, visit his website.

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