The enigmatic life and quietly legendary work of Claude Ranger
When I was in high school in Sarnia, Ontario, in the early 1980s, trying to play jazz on my trumpet, there were maybe six guys in the city trying to play jazz on the drums. Easily the best was a beautiful blond boy named Mark with sad blue eyes, the son of a music teacher.
It’s crazy how seriously we took this music. Mark Timmermans took it more seriously than anyone. One time he threw a house party whose stated theme, spelled out on flyers he distributed around our school’s band room, was “Where Has Jazz Gone?” The question was of limited interest to most of our classmates, who showed up to flirt and drink. A smaller group clustered for hours around the record player, where Mark had decreed that on this night, only the recordings of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane could be played.
When we rehearsed, in the band room or at one of our homes, Mark showed good understanding of the loose-limbed, rhythmically complex styles of Elvin Jones and Jack DeJohnette, the most influential American drummers of the 1960s and ’70s, respectively. But it was the way he played that fascinated me. Eyes staring into the middle distance, a cigarette jutting from his mouth, an ashtray and an open beer sitting on the flat circular skin of his floor tom, a big low-pitched drum that sat hip-high on the floor like a taboret stool.
It was not until I was in university, making occasional trips to Toronto to hear jazz, that I realized Mark’s performance style was a decent and altogether earnest impression of Claude Ranger, a Montreal-born drummer whose presence on a bandstand was all it took to raise the stakes, both aesthetic and emotional, of any gig he worked. Ranger was a nearly lifelong freelancer, rarely associated with a steady working band for long. He preferred to play with musicians working the wilder, freer end of the jazz turf, more or less distant successors to John Coltrane’s 1960s quartet. When Ranger was comfortable enough with his temporary colleagues to play more than a solid supporting role, his instinct was almost always to goad them toward greater energy and abandon. Eventually I found other drummers imitating Ranger in one way or another: cigarette out the mouth, beer in easy reach, snare drum positioned up close to the body, face impassive but limbs ready to articulate a crescendo. Detached but predatory. Nobody could really play like Claude, but many were trying.
I am not sure I can convey how rare it was—is—to see Canadian jazz musicians displaying so clear a debt to a Canadian elder as to copy his mannerisms, especially when the elder in question never left Canada for international (read: almost always American) stardom. Jazz is everywhere, but it began as American music and its mecca is still New York City. Its household gods are Americans. It is easy to find students who idolize this or that member of the music’s American pantheon. The trumpeter Bunny Berigan once said that all a young musician needed to succeed on the road was a toothbrush and a photo of Louis Armstrong. But to adore a small-time Toronto club drummer so thoroughly you’d want to look like a photo of him? Not so common.
Claude Ranger was a particular case, shy and fierce, deeply competent and a rebel. He drew admirers in even as his brusque manner seemed designed to repel them. The charismatic aura that fascinated his peers has only deepened since the November night in 2000 when he was last seen in Vancouver, where he lived during the last several years of his career. He has not been seen anywhere in the nearly 17 years since that night. He just vanished. He was 59 at the time. The RCMP missing persons file on him is still open. His family, his colleagues and the former students who idolized him now must try to fill the gap his disappearance left in the music—nobody knows what became of him. But what makes Claude Ranger’s story worth telling is that his life was, in some ways, as much of an enigma as the way he vanished.
His chronicler here is Mark Miller. I cannot imagine anyone else writing a Claude Ranger biography. Miller was the Globe and Mail’s jazz writer from 1978 to 2005. He came into a modest sum of money and walked away from the freelance but steady Globe gig. He is missed. Miller’s reviews and profiles were the texts of real-time jazz school for a generation of Canadian fans. A quiet man who is unimpressed by commercial success on the rare occasions when a musician bumps into some, Miller has been a diligent chronicler of Canadian jazz careers spent away from the spotlight. His first book, 1982’s Jazz in Canada: Fourteen Lives, compiled short biographies of 14 musicians who would never be as prominent as the pianist Oscar Peterson or the high-note trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, two expats from Montreal who became as prominent as any Canadian ever has in jazz. One of the 14 was Claude Ranger.
You may already have surmised that the subtitle of Miller’s biography, Claude Ranger: Canadian Jazz Legend, is ironic. Or at least that the adjective “Canadian” heavily modifies and constrains the other two words. Ranger recorded only sporadically, never as a bandleader. Very little of his output has survived to the era of online music streaming. He is hard to find even on YouTube, and nothing that is there really represents Ranger at his unbridled best. “The fact that he left very little to show for his life in music,” Miller writes, “is also a reflection of the Canadian jazz scene, which went largely undocumented in the 1960s and 1970s and only gradually less so in the 1980s and 1990s.”
The scene in question, as nobody has chronicled better than Miller, was really a succession of regional scenes, centred on Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. Individual personalities matter a lot, and the quirks of a few players make every jazz city different from others. But if there is a general trend over the period Ranger was active, it is a slow embrace of post-bebop modernism, of music indebted to the innovations of Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus, usually championed by younger generations against the conventions of their elders. In the mid 1960s, Canadian jazz was awfully polite. By the 1980s, it was often dangerous and exhilarating. Ranger was a key player in that movement toward greater risk.
Ranger lives on mostly in memory. I probably saw him a half-dozen times between 1986 and 1995. I remember a compact, handsome man. Usually cheerful, although there were rumours of a blistering temper. A drummer who could be fiery, loud and rhythmically complex, but who rarely played anything that did not fit the context. A helpful drummer whose work complemented that of his colleagues. No wonder so many liked playing with him.
On other nights, Ranger could be more willing to give in to his darker instincts. Miller quotes the superb Toronto bassist Steve Wallace, who first heard Ranger in the early 1970s when Ranger moved to Toronto from Montreal. “When I played with him at his best, he was as good as anyone I ever heard or played with,” Wallace says.
But there was nothing functional about it. He wasn’t able to turn himself off, size up what a gig was supposed to be about and just do it. Whereas some guys, by dint of their personality, can do that. With Claude, a lot of people thought it was the drinking, but if he was bugged, or not inspired by what was going on around him, he just wouldn’t play. He’d almost play not well on purpose. Or, he’d stop. I remember that. He did that on gigs I was on. He’d stop.
Miller talked to nearly 100 people who knew Ranger, most of them musicians. The result is a clear-eyed portrayal, not only of Ranger, but also of Canadian jazz in a period of constant change, as practised by people who had no particular hope of getting rich or famous doing it, but who did it because this music always has its own fascinations.
Ranger was born in 1941 to a working-class family in east-end Montreal. His father was a manual labourer and truck driver. It was not a musical family. Ranger studied at no conservatory. He discovered drumming by accident, in high school, and it consumed his life. “I lost all of my friends,” he told an interviewer whom Miller quotes. “There was no one anymore and I found myself alone with a set of drums. ‘What can you do with it?’ I was just banging on it. I quit school—actually, I was thrown out—and I quit work. I just tried to play. I was 16. I sat there for two years, all day long, and just hit the drums.”
There is little formal schooling in Ranger’s musical upbringing, but formidable discipline. His father told him that if he was not going to be in school, then drumming would be his job, and he had to take it seriously. There followed a long apprenticeship in society bands, playing commercial music for pop singers or dances. This has nothing to do with the improvisational creativity of jazz, but it does tend to instil discipline and teach the importance of making others sound good.
This is a decent explanation for the central contradiction in Ranger’s playing: how he could be so wild and free, but so flexible as to adapt easily to other musicians’ styles and personalities. Ranger eventually turns into a black hole, vanishing so completely as to leave no trace of himself, but he was anything but a naive or untutored musician.
By the early 1970s, after a promising start in real jazz clubs, Ranger finds himself backing an Italian-Canadian pop singer and a weekly Elvis Presley impersonation contest in a music hall in Montreal’s north end. A bassist, Michael Morse, describes the depth of Ranger’s mastery in that God-forsaken setting:
The hook to the commercial merengué beat … is four sixteenth-notes on the snare drum at the end of the second bar of the pattern, leading to the downbeat: “ducka-ducka-DUM; ducka-ducka-DUM.” When the tune started my friends and I suddenly felt something utterly marvellous, and didn’t know immediately what it was. We soon figured it out. Claude was playing all of the standard accents for the merengue, but was playing the principal figure on the ride cymbal instead of the snare. The first sixteenth-note, he left out altogether. The next was piano-pianissimo, the next pianissimo, the fourth and last piano, in a slight, incredibly controlled crescendo. The effect was magical, profoundly musical, and danceable, too!
A guy who can innovate the merengué brings a very particular set of instincts to less predictable contexts. In his jazz playing, which would have been his only work if he could make a living from it, Ranger soon found himself gravitating west of Montreal’s traditional French-English dividing line, St. Laurent Boulevard, and then west of Montreal altogether—to Toronto, where he would spend the bulk of his career.
“I find that guys in Montreal are more ‘black,’ less afraid,” Ranger said.
If they take more chances, they’re not afraid. They play. Like Guy Nadon—like a madman. He’s not afraid. He plays. In Toronto, guys take fewer chances. It’s safer. That doesn’t mean they’re not as good. I find that guys in Toronto know much more—Bernie Senensky, Ted Moses, they know. Moe Koffman. They know how to play, these guys. But it’s not free, not wild.
Ranger’s own personality is too large for these distinctions. He knows and plays, both at once. He can be comically impatient with musicians who are not up to his standards, or who are too reserved. In one famous incident, he quit the band of Moe Koffman, the courtly and pop-friendly saxophonist and flute player whose band was the steadiest money gig in Toronto jazz, and who also controlled bookings at Toronto’s most prominent club, George’s Spaghetti House. Quitting the Koffman gig was career suicide. Ranger didn’t care. He had had enough of the way Koffman played.
The second half of Miller’s book chronicles Ranger as his jumble of characteristics—fussy, shy, combative, adaptable, demanding—play themselves out in a sort of double helix, a downward career spiral nearly simultaneous with ever-higher musical achievement. He becomes a teacher, his students usually paying him with beer or short-term loans he rarely repays. He has brushes with greatness, as leading American jazz musicians travelling through Toronto use his services for a night or a week. He has money problems, substance-abuse problems, mental health challenges. Then he disappears.
It is hard to know what to make of it all. One of Miller’s great strengths as a writer is his emotional restraint. The urge to cheerlead is as alien to him as the easy putdowns of a hanging judge. He makes no great claims for greatness on Ranger’s behalf; the only superlatives come from musicians who worked with him.
If the word “legend” applies to Ranger, it is not so much in the sense of a figure so formidable he inspires tall tales as in the sense of a half-remembered rumour. Something that may once have happened but it is hard to be sure. A whisper. There was once a drummer named Claude Ranger. He stood apart. All around him was the jazz of the late 20th century, played by outcasts who took their work seriously and loved it, even if the world did not and still doesn’t. The people who needed to know, knew.