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Sep-18-2012 15:59printcomments

Lance

If music be the food of love, play on... Smutty Bill

jazz
Courtesy: lpmvoice.com

(DAYTONA BEACH, FLA) - There's an enigma about jazz. I mean traditional jazz, not the offshoots, the evolutionary branches. I mean the kind you might hear on Bourbon Street in N'Orleans, although more likely, these days, drowned out by hard rock abominations. Trad. Where I live, in Dixie where it all started, anyone you might stop on the street doesn't even know what you're talking about. But in the Pacific Northwest, in Sacramento or Seaside, Olympia or Oak Harbor - or Penticton, B.C., you can find a jazz festival any weekend between March and October, if you care to drive 100 miles or so.

But there are geographical constraints. Early in the 90s, my enamorata and I were walking along a quiet street in Maui, as it happened deep in an atypical argument about something, when we were arrested. stopped dead in our tracks, by the strains of melody totally foreign to that Pacific paradise. To our rear, a trumpet was belting out what I immediately discerned as "Muskrat Ramble," a trombone sawing away in the lower register and a clarinet was providing a contrapuntal obligato. Retracing our footsteps, we discovered, slightly recessed from street level, a boite with outside tables among which a clutch of strolling troubadours were enthralling the tourists, and very shortly informed us that they were in fact the advanced guard of what would shortly become The First Annual Maui Jazz Festival.

We enrolled on the spot, but our hopes were dashed at the initial gig the following day. The event also became The Last Annual Maui Jazz Festival. Taking up residence in a leading hotel, the opening venue was attended by (a) the same band (journeymen from the Seattle area, bolstered by Bob Draga, a clarinet impresario from Kissimee, Florida) and (b) my significant other, and (c) me. Meanwhile, hard by and overflowing two or three function rooms, the hotel's huge grounds and at least a hectare of beach, a luau with hundreds of twanging ukeleles and thousands of revelers held sway.

Obviously we jazzers had a cross-cultural problem, unlike what was constantly going on in the good old Pacific Northwest.

There's something else that blows me away: the talent and the devotion of jazz musicians. The straight-ahead musicianship displayed at a typical jazz festival is unbelievable, and guys - then at least, in the Nineties, of which I speak (I have sought refugee status in Daytona since the Millenium Glitch made cowards of us all) - would blow their brains out for 50 to 100 bucks a gig. I don't have to tell you about the obscene fortunes that leading rock bands are paid.

In any event, it's time I was getting to my text. Which is that, in Vancouver - about as culturally removed from N'Orleans as it is from Dublin - we had a jazz club, the Hot Jazz Society, for more than 30 years. At its peak popularity in the early 1990s, when I was a director, it was going full blast five nights a week. And for much of that lifetime, it's mainstay, it's central icon, the leader of the house band, was an amazing musician called Lance Harrison.

I first met Lance even before I knew The Club, when a group of us at UBC were busy fund-raising, the purpose of which is another story and unimportant. Somebody directed us to Lance, who responded to our request for a jazz festival not only with his own band, but by dragooning four other groups - all donating their time and talent. Lance, I was to learn, would play for a kid's birthday party or a dog fight or any other occasion at the drop of a hat. He would play pro bono, or pass-the-hat or union scale or - New Year's Eve - whatever the going rate. He may have had independent means, or perhaps he lived off the nourishment of music - I never found out, although I knew him for many years.

Lance could play anything. He played regular gigs as lead tenor sax in Dal Richards' big band. His own Dixieland Jazz Band consisted of trumpet, trombone, clarinet, bass, guitar, drums and piano, and Lance was the clarinet. He also played soprano sax, alto, occasionally a huge bass sax bigger than himself, and when the occasion demanded it - a banjo. His wife told me once that for relaxation, at home, his instrument of choice was classical oboe.

To illustrate, one Armistice Day, as was our wont, we, a delegation from the Jazz Club attended at the Billy Bishop Legion near Kits Beach, which was packed to the doors and Lance's band was in residence. When I had fought through to the tiny band stand, instead of the usual seven guys, I discovered only four musicians, one more than those in Picasso's famous painting. The reason for this paucity, I learned was austerity and a Legion budget that couldn't afford Lance's usual complement. There was Doug, the usual drummer, Frank the piano man, Gavin, the bass player, who uncharacteristically was nursing a clarinet and, as a consequence, Lance himself brandished a trumpet, which he appeared to be getting by with quite handily.

"How long has this been going on?" I asked, pointing at the unaccustomed trumpet.

"Oh, two or three weeks," Lance said. The guy could make music with a mouth organ or a washboard. And his voice - like Louis Armstrong's - was his ultimate instrument. He could remember lyrics from the Twenties, even later when age caught up with him and like all of us, he began to lose his faculties.

In that regard, I remember once in later years when I returned from my annual snowbird sojourn, I checked in at The Club and noted that Lance's group was on the stand. The guys in the band had told me on former occasions that Lance was beginning to stagger, he was unsteady on the band stand, they feared for his perhaps falling off the stage. He was, I suppose by this time, in his late eighties.

And now as I watched, he was bumbling around on stage, looking vacant, looking for his instruments.

"Old Lance has finally lost it," I thought, with a catch in my throat.

Just then, the band swung into an old stand-by, and Lance, stooping, picked up his tenor from its stand. He hooked it on, swung it up and proceeded to roll out three incredible choruses, as innovative, as fresh and as varied as any improvisation he'd ever done. Then he stood there, amid the applause, looking a little doubtful, and walked unsteadily over to the piano to give Frank some instruction or other.

One notable exception to the western bias I've been indulging in, particularly if you're a Biederbecke scholar, is the great Bix Jazz Festival in his hometown of Davenport, Iowa, which has been going on annually in July almost since Bix checked out prematurely not long after Satch was still recording with his Hot Five. In fact it was Louis himself who once said: "All the cats try to sound like Bix, but nobody ever do." Bix's friend Hoagy Carmichael said that Bix's silvery tone had never been duplicated before or since.

But I digress. Actually I can get back to Lance by mentioning that a few years ago at one of Florida's few concessions to America's purest art form - the Suncoast Classic Jazz Festival in Clearwater, I was fortunate to meet Spiegel Wilcox, who had the distinction at the time of being the only surviving person who had played with Bix Biederbecke's Wolverines. The neophyte he had replaced on trombone at that time was a youth called Tommy Dorsey, who segue'd into the big-band era.

Spiegel played on that Clearwater occasion with Bob Draga, and I can recall that at the age of 96 he was not great. But he was good. Which he had to be to keep up with Draga. And I asked him if he knew Lance Harrison. He thought for a minute and then said: "Oh, he's that young Canadian that plays the reeds."

As a matter of fact, it was two or three years after that I learned - at the Bix Festival, of course - that Spiegel had played his last slush-pump riff. And I think it was about the same time that Lance died also.

I happened to be back in Vancouver shortly after, so that I was there when we held a wake at the Hot Jazz Society that Lance would have loved, with every regular from Victoria to San Diego showing up and playing pro bono, just the way Lance would have set it up. And a cash bar going full blast all night.

But since they left at about the same time, I get a picture of the two of them - Lance on clarinet and Spiegel Wilcox on trombone - lining up with Bix and his trumpet, who were already there. Or maybe all three of them as side men with the angel Gabriel.

Now THAT would have been a great jazz band.

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Bill Annett grew up a writing brat; his father, Ross Annett, at a time when Scott Fitzgerald and P.G. Wodehouse were regular contributors, wrote the longest series of short stories in the Saturday Evening Post's history, with the sole exception of the unsinkable Tugboat Annie.

At 18, Bill's first short story was included in the anthology “Canadian Short Stories.” Alarmed, his father enrolled Bill in law school in Manitoba to ensure his going straight. For a time, it worked, although Bill did an arabesque into an English major, followed, logically, by corporation finance, investment banking and business administration at NYU and the Wharton School. He added G.I. education in the Army's CID at Fort Dix, New Jersey during the Korean altercation.

He also contributed to The American Banker and Venture in New York, INC. in Boston, the International Mining Journal in London, Hong Kong Business, Financial Times and Financial Post in Toronto.

Bill has written six books, including a page-turner on mutual funds, a send-up on the securities industry, three corporate histories and a novel, the latter no doubt inspired by his current occupation in Daytona Beach as a law-abiding beach comber.

You can write to Bill Annett at this address: bilko23@gmail.com

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