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I don’t remember a time in my life in which the piano wasn’t the center of the scene. My mind swims with childhood memories of one of my grandmothers seated at the piano, my grandfather standing behind with his hand on her shoulder, singing in a raspy but beautiful tenor voice. Songs from the gay 90s were his specialty.
From the time I could pull myself up to the keyboard I was always at the keyboard picking out melodies that were a part of the Simpson family soundtrack of the 60s and 70s. My grandmother Simpson (my dad’s mom) said at dinner one time, “You really should get Grant into lessons. He is always at that piano.” My dad fired back “NO! Everyone of the older kids have gone through lessons and as soon as they start getting somewhere – they quit! It breaks my heart AND my wallet. No! I’ve had enough.”
I remember as clear as day, both my grandmothers standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the dining room whispering to each other. The Grandma Plot was hatched and they took it to him. “Ok then. We’ll pay for all the lessons for the first year. If he practices then you take over.” And that was that. My Grandmothers paid for my first year of lessons and my Dad paid for the next ten years. Even so, my Grandparents were not affluent people, so as luck would have it, there was a program offered in my primary school that subsidized piano lessons for selected students. I was one of the selected students and I began group piano lessons with Mrs. Mary Skipsey. She taught all six kids in the class at once. We all had folding cardboard keyboards where we were taught how to hold our hands and where the notes were. Then each student would have a few minutes at the real piano with Mrs. Skipsey.
After two years of group lessons, Mrs. Skipsey placed me with Christina Burnett, another wonderful Nanaimo piano teacher. Lessons with Mrs. Burnett were wonderful as she would let me play anything I wanted to play – as long as my Toronto Conservatory Pieces were on track. I remember taking her some new sheet music I bought of one of my favorite tunes of the time – “How Sweet is Is to be Loved by You” and she was so delighted with it – I can still remember the joy and enthusiasm pouring out of that lesson as she took me through the different ways I could approach it.
I worked with Mrs. Burnett until I entered College in the Jazz Studies program. Through that program I had a string of stellar teachers who began to teach me what being a professional musician was all about.
It was by sheer luck that I met Archie Ireland. Introduced by our mutual friend Greg Fox, Archie and I became close buddies right away. He was exactly what I needed at the point of my education in traditional jazz piano. Archie is a fine pianist who can rip it up with boogie, stride or swing. His playing exudes joy and I loved the way he played right away. He SWUNG!
Archie was also infinitely generous. It just so happened that he worked across the street from where I was living at the time – so regular lunch hours were spent together listening to recordings and talking everything piano. Archie had transcripts he brought over from England and he laid those on me. I had been listening to Teddy Wilson and Earl Hines and Archie walked in with all these transcripts for me to read. They had all been burnt in a house fire that Archie experienced – so they were all burned around the edges like you do when you try to make a treasure map look authentic. These transcripts reeked of smoke – but wow did they ever open up my eyes and ears. For the first time I could see what I had been listening to – trying to figure it all out.
Archie and his wife Barbara would come to gigs when I was playing and taking notes on the songs I was doing. He was ruthless! His critiques would make me really think hard about what I was doing in the moment. It was hard to take sometimes – but the best thing that could have happened to me at the time. It was great training for staying focused and in the music that I was playing. If I lost my concentration and began to let my mind wander too much – Archie would make a note of it – he could hear it. That’s how intensely he would listen to me. You don’t find friends like that just anywhere. He really was a gift to me – and so was his wife Barbara.
I recently found the video below that I had taken of Archie playing piano. This was on a visit in 1994 and it captures Archie’s great playing on Latin styles. In a surprise to me Archie is playing a song I wrote for Barbara for her birthday. The song is called “Barbara’s Country Home”.
I still talk to Archie on the phone regularly and visit with him whenever I can. I still have a binder on my bookshelf that is titled “Lessons from Archie”. These aren’t lessons that he taught me directly – these are all things he would read and discover in Keyboard Magazine, Piano Magazine or the New Yorker or anywhere else he would search out and find interesting things about music, piano players and jazz.
And not a day goes by that I don’t thank my lucky stars that I have Archie Ireland in my life.
Elmer Gill 1980
My first teacher in College was Elmer Gill, master pianist and vibraphonist who toured with Ray Brown, Harry Sweets Edison, Eddie Lockjaw Davis and more.
My first lesson with Elmer was a big affair. I lived in Nanaimo and he was in Vancouver – so I had to take the BC Ferry to Horseshoe Bay and then the city bus to his place. When I first got there he said “Sit down and play something for me.” I began playing “Georgia on My Mind” and he walked out of the room and returned a minute later eating an apple. I kept playing and he finally said “No – no – NO. Look, you need to learn your chords!” He had me write out every chord extension in every key as homework.
As I began to improve he was even more ruthless. At one point he said “Look, you said you want to be a professional pianist? Well then it’s a full time job! Forty hours a week MINIMUM! Sixty if you can! You need sixty!”
My lessons with Elmer could be completely humiliating and humbling at times. But he taught me so much and forced me to learn so much I will be forever grateful for every exasperated pointer he gave me.
A couple of years into the future, I was hired to play supper piano for one of Tio’s special jazz nights in Courtney. Elmer had an all-star band who were eating while I played. Roy Reynolds was playing Tenor in the band and at one point Roy got up and grabbed his horn and began to play with me. What a thrill! When my set was over Roy was saying “Yeah kid!” and Elmer showed up and put his arm around me. “Well, you’ve been working and if you keep it up you’re going to be just fine.”
Elmer took the stage and began playing “What’s New” on the vibes. Roy joined in, and one by one the band left the supper table and joined in until What’s New became a 25 minute rhapsody. I remember it all clear as bell – which is exactly how Elmer’s beautiful vibraphone playing. What a master – and what a gift to me.
Here’s a link to some more information on Elmer Gill included several cuts from his great recordings.
Louise Rose 1981-1983
Next came a three years of some of the best piano education anyone could ever hope for. Louise Rose was hired to teach at the College and every second we were let into the wonderful world of Louise’s music and spirit. It was a wonderful time in my education. She was just as tough as Elmer – but I had been at it for a couple of years so I was able to learn so much from her. I was also playing full time by then, so everything she taught me was put to work six nights a week – four hours a night.
The study of jazz absorbed me and Louise was and is a master at taking any tune and turning it into a groove that will just take you along for the ride every single time. She is still playing as beautiful as ever and you can catch her on Hermann’s Jazz Club’s live stream – or even better – catch her live in one of her rare appearances. She is one of the most inspiring musicians I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. Visit Louise’s website here:
Gerry Bryant 1984
Next came a year with Gerry Bryant who was one of the most gracious and elegant pianist/singers I have had lessons with. Gerry guided me – always pushing me to learn more complicated pieces and work on my voicings. He is a beautiful pianist, singer and person.
Gerry still lives and plays in Victoria.
Mike Taylor 1985
Mike Taylor was a force playing in Vancouver. I first heard him on Lynton Garner’s weekly jazz show and looked him up immediately to see if he would take me on as a student. He agreed and for the next year I was under the care of this great pianist. He has a great sound and played a stride-bebop combination that I was trying to figure out at the time. He grabbed onto me and pushed me “slow down”. He taught me to take more time to examine what I was doing – to be more thoughtful. Thank you Mike!
Mike currently lives and plays in LA.
Gigs from Sea to shining Sea
By the mid 1980s I was working full time in Vancouver and Victoria and was offered a position as entertainer with Exploration Cruise Lines. For six years I worked for Exploration in the winter and The Frantic Follies in the Summer.