When Vancouver began to boom just before the First World War, it became known as a theatrical centre thanks to such people as Alexander Pantages. He was a Greek immigrant who made his fortune in the Klondike gold rush and parlayed it into one of the two biggest theatre chains in North America. His descendants (some of whom founded the city’s annual polar bear swim on New Year’s Day) are still active in West Coast show business.
As Vancouver grew, it became a thicket of vaudeville houses, cabarets, hotel ballrooms, supper clubs, and unclassifiable nightspots. Many early jazz artists slipped into the mix. Twenty-five veterans formed what they claimed was the world’s largest jazz band. In 1919 and 1920, Jelly Roll Morton — late of New Orleans and one of the first important jazz composers, or at least one of the first to write down his compositions — played the Patricia Hotel, which still stands. Then times changed, as times are wont to do.
Big bands became the vogue and led youth culture through the Second World War. Other than the CBC, there were few mechanisms for listening to jazz, and few opportunities to record it, though by 1945 Oscar Peterson, from Montreal’s Petite-Bourgogne neighbourhood, was recording in New York. What would later be called the counterculture began popping up, especially on the West Coast. Hip young people in the 1950s were not much interested in hearing commercial jazz of the old Paul Whiteman sort. The beboppers had new styles, tastes, and attitudes, but they had relatively few places to perform the music they wanted to play.
Marian Jago has performed a genuine service in capturing one of the places that did exist, with a diligently researched and amiably written study of a unique time and place in Vancouver’s musical past.
The Penthouse on Seymour Street, still extant but greatly toned down, was the primary place for after-hours jam sessions in 1950s Vancouver. Jago, a British Columbian who lectures on popular music at the University of Edinburgh, describes it this way:
Part athletic club, taxi stand, private bar, cabaret, and supper club, the Penthouse kept notoriously late hours. Despite, or perhaps because of its colourful reputation, the Penthouse became the spot in Vancouver during the 1950s for club owners, musicians, waitresses, bartenders, cab drivers, reporters, actors, off-duty policemen, dancers, and anyone who wanted a drink late at night to congregate.
The Penthouse was decidedly Vancouver. Montreal and Toronto may have had significant jazz scenes, but they left out people living in smaller places across the country. In any case, many of the far-flung rebels in the West found the bigger city clubs conservative, even stale.
Jago points to a 2013 interview with the Canadian drummer Stan Perry to illustrate the disconnect: “The average Joe — Mr. and Mrs. Smith, they don’t have a clue about jazz, and they can’t get up and dance to it, and us guys, at least when I was young, [we] didn’t give a sweet pippy about the general public, [we] just wanted to go out and play. . . . We could play whatever we damn well pleased, you know. And we didn’t have to be beholden to anyone else.”
In Vancouver, but also elsewhere, the hunger for independence resulted in jazz clubs that were co‑ops, run by the musicians themselves. One named 777 Barrington Street started up in Halifax, just as the Yardbird Suite did in Edmonton and Foggy Manor did in Calgary. Jago agrees with Mark Miller, Canada’s most authoritative jazz historian and critic, in saying that “the actions and activities of these early jazz co‑operatives created a new and infectious energy for jazz in Canada.” She singles out the Cellar, near Broadway and Main in Vancouver’s East End, not necessarily because it was the most important (though it was) but because it “left behind the most evidence.”
The original Cellar — it was actually below street level — began in 1956 with a crowd of twenty in attendance. It soon needed additional room. Just as it had antecedents, so it later had what might be called farm teams, such as the Flat Five and the Black Spot, some of which were more beatnikish than others. Such start-ups, whether co‑ops or not, were always fragile. Coeval with the Cellar was a joint called the Wailhouse, though it lasted only half a year.
The list of Canadian musicians who plied their craft at the Cellar is astonishing. The pianist and artist Al Neil, who died in 2017, was one of the venue’s founders. The drummer Terry Clarke, the saxophonist Dale Hillary, and others like them figured prominently. In time, American musicians with big reputations began to appear at the Cellar, though their frequent visits were not always free of trouble. The trumpeter and composer Ornette Coleman, a former Los Angeles elevator operator, was met with derision in 1959 for flaunting “dominant performative norms within the scene,” while another African American, the great Charles Mingus, had an altercation with members of the B.C. Lions football team in 1961.
Jago deals honestly with racial and gender diversity throughout the book. She shows how the Cellar sometimes drew on residents of Hogan’s Alley, the centre of African-Canadian life in Vancouver. Most of the neighbourhood was callously bulldozed in 1970, just as Africville in Halifax had been destroyed in the 1960s. Female jazz artists, such as Ernestine Anderson, a woman of colour, sang at the club; Anderson was “perhaps the highest-profile vocalist to do so.” But she was considered too successful and popular to work in a small co‑op. In any case she was into American-style music that “was jazz-inflected without actually being jazz” — that is to say, exactly what the Cellar was intended not to showcase. “In the main,” Jago writes, “the women who frequented the Cellar were not musicians but rather jazz enthusiasts drawn by the music and hipsters attracted to the scene.”
The Cellar had many links to San Francisco, and it “functioned as a nexus for the burgeoning postwar counterculture and became a space where emerging musicians, poets, painters, architects, activists, actors, and filmmakers communed.” Writers such as Kenneth Patchen and bill bissett read to jazz there. Painters hung their works on the walls. Plays, including Beckett’s Endgame, were mounted. Even stand-up comedians did their turn. Some of the musicians were familiar with drugs, including heroin, and local narcs kept watch at a distance.
The question Jago probes is how and to what extent the Cellar’s multidisciplinary atmosphere affected its primary staple: the new jazz it represented and nurtured. The place closed down when folk music, the opposite of jazz, and student coffee houses, the opposite of jazz clubs, came into vogue. As she writes, “Though none of these co‑operative jazz clubs existed beyond 1964 in their original forms, they had a lasting and profound effect on the development of jazz in Canada as a domestic art form and on the construction of a domestic jazz industry composed of a network of jazz societies, commercially sponsored jazz festivals, record labels, and educational initiatives.” This so-called industry replaced what had been something closer to a beatific cult. Yet the central ideas of the jazz co‑ops resurfaced elsewhere.
Beginning in the late 1960s, innovatory painters, filmmakers, musicians, and pioneer video and installation artists carried on the spirit of the Cellar by founding and running non-profit centres that provided workspaces and hosted events. Multidisciplinary behaviour was in the air once again — think Michael Snow or Vera Frenkel. An early example of these new venues was A Space in Toronto, which opened in 1971 on Richmond Street West, and has since moved several times. The best-known Vancouver one was the Western Front on Eighth Avenue East.
Today there are scores of such places across the country, many members of the umbrella group CARFAC. The organization can be seen as carrying the flame of the jazz co‑ops of old, yet the differences are obvious: Jazz wasn’t supposed to be organized to the max. It was intended to incite freedom. I believe strongly in collaboration, even as I watch it becoming bureaucratic, slightly authoritarian. In the past few years, many granting agencies have downplayed support for individual artists working alone in their specific genres. Collaboration not only is the byword now, it is almost mandatory outside of the literary arts. One gets the feeling that the ideal grant application would be one that brings together a tap dancer, a yodeller, and a blacksmith.
George Fetherling has published fifty books of fiction, poetry, and cultural commentary. He lives in Vancouver.
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