In Toronto, Archie Alleyne worked to lift up black Canadian jazz musicians

This archival interview is from Bill King’s upcoming book of interviews, Talk! Conversations in All Keys.

In June of 2015, my good friend and bandstand partner Archie Alleyne passed away at 82. Archie had been battling prostate cancer for the previous decade — a decade during which we rarely saw each other. Our time shared was between 1992 and 2002, when it seemed like we played everywhere and with every aspiring singer, beginning with Liberty Silver. Archie didn’t particularly care for pushing singers along; he was a “schooled” hard-bop drummer intent on one day leading a band and producing his music. It happened as he cleared 70 years of age, when he formed Kollage.

Archie wanted his band to be black. He wanted it to speak to this country and tell the story of black Canadian jazz musicians, and to hold our attention. I was never troubled by that. I understood his frustration and purpose of mind. Archie wanted role models in his band for other young gifted black musicians. He didn’t want them focused on musicians south of the border where jazz originated; those popular jazz faces; the ordained or familiar. It was his story — a Canadian story near invisible — and he wanted black Canadian heroes recognized. Montreal got all the acclaim. There was Oscar Peterson, Sonny Greenwich, Ranee Lee, Oliver Jones. What about Toronto?

Archie made it his mission to restore and archive the photographs and names of those musicians before him. With the support of JAZZ.FM91 and friends, that dream was fully realized with a recording called Fine Print and a scholarship fund in his name. I was fortunate to produce one side of the band’s debut, and to contribute a song: Archie Meets Art.

Anyone who met Arch knew he carried himself with dignity and revealed a great sense of humour. I took him aside in 2001 just as he formed Kollage and caught this exchange. Archie taught us that living the dream is not something solely in possession of youth — it’s there for all of us.

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You’ve waited a long time to pull Kollage together.

I have waited for years. I guess it’s been 51 years, to be exact. The time I’ve been playing and the many gigs that I’ve done, I’ve had to accompany someone else. That’s not a problem because that’s how you learn. Finally, I’ve got a band where I choose the music and the concepts. I’m playing what I want, and I’m having a hell of a time. I can get into my drums more. There’s no prima donna vocalist insisting I play just brushes.

Stylistically, is there a period this band represents?

The music stems from the ‘40s, part of the swing era when Benny Carter and Art Farmer collaborated and had those wondrous little arrangements. But we also touch the hard-bop era that came just after bebop.

When I hear your band, I discover tunes not commonly performed by most jazz groups.

They’re not standards like All The Things You Ain’t. We just finished working on an old Freddie Hubbard tune called A Peck a Sec, which is fantastic. We’ve added a few little bits ourselves. We have no music or charts for the tunes. I take the record in, and Dougie Richardson lifts the “head.” He takes Joel Josephs, the second reedman in the band, in the corner, and within a half-hour, they’ve got it down. Michael Shand, who is my musical director, has the changes and format together. It’s easy for me; I grew up with these tunes. I use my ears.

Dougie and you are grand-poppas in the band.

I’m the senior poppa. I was on the scene a little before Dougie during the latter part of the ‘40s on into the ‘50s.

Where did you find the young players?

Without creating any racial thing, I wanted to provide opportunities for young black musicians, so I looked at Humber College and York University. The best and the brightest young black musicians have gone on to New York, and as you know, a lot of them have done exceptionally well. I got lucky and caught Michael, who Don Thompson recommended, called him, and put him on the roster. I had another young trumpeter lined up, but he decided to get married instead — his lips are in a different place — so I went to Joel Josephs, who’s going to Humber to study with Pat LaBarbera. I also contacted bassist Ron Johnson who’s up there between Dougie and me in age. He’s solid and lays it down nicely. Michael Shand is a genius who keeps getting better and better. I should do a trio album with him eventually. Joel and Michael are into the R&B scene as well as reggae. Both are up all night playing somewhere or the other until two in the morning.

There is a calmness to the music from what the young players bring and what Doug and I can offer. Much of what I hear out there today is too busy. The music is overwritten with no room for relaxing. The players have to have a sheet of paper in front of them. If you miss two bars, you have to start over again. I’m trying to keep it simple. Once between the ears, they are free to deal with improvisation and feel what we feel as a group. I’m also trying to free them from the academic aspects of jazz, which I view as a hindrance.

With Afro-Canadian jazz musicians, a minority within a minority, you must feel a sense of pride.

All of the black musicians in Toronto from the latter part of the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s have died off. Back then, it was guys like Cy McLean and his band that did some road touring for Lifebuoy Soap. People would come out of the woodwork to see a black band — it was like the circus had come to town. During that period, there weren’t too many clubs for them to play. They played mostly for community dances, performing Ellington, Basie, Benny Goodman and even Guy Lombardo. As far as the small groups were concerned, none were allowed to play the Yonge Street strip because the club owners were afraid they’d bring their black relatives into the establishment and drive down the property values.

Over the years, you’ve played with many of the giants of jazz: Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Benny Carter and Lester Young. When they came to town, did they ask for specific musicians from the black community to be part of the backing band?

They knew there were few African-Canadian musicians here directly involved with the jazz situation. There were a lot of blues players, especially at 355 College St., which was the UNIA — the United Negro Improvement Association, the land of jive, the place for happy feet. It was the first jam session club in the city before Clem Hamburg’s place. When the Town Tavern opened, I took the very first house band in there with Herbie Helbig, who is long gone now, on piano; Lenny Boyd, who teaches at Humber College, on bass; Dave Hammer, who’s still here and one of the great under-recognized saxophone players in the country; and vocalist Anne-Marie Moss. We played a week, and they liked it so much they hired us. Then they hired Norm Amadio, who was a very capable sight-reader and great accompanist.

How long did the gig last?

Norm and I stayed together for 10 years, then I remained another three with Maury Kaye and then Wray Downes.

Any highlights come to mind looking back?

All of the weeks. It was such an honour to work with all of those musicians. Many are now dead. It was an incredible period of development coming out of the ‘40s when bebop hit. Montreal had the clubs, but Toronto got happening with the Town Tavern and the Colonial Tavern. I was lucky enough to be the house drummer for both. It got to the point where touring artists asked specifically for me.

The Colonial lasted to the closing moments of the ‘80s.

During its heyday, it was fabulous. Shadow Wilson came up one year with Charlie Barnet. They got to customs, and there was a problem with Shadow. He got held up for a couple of days. His drums were in place at the club, so Goody Lichtenberg, the owner, told him to call me up. I ended up working with the Barnet band, which was great. Barnet enjoyed it so much he asked me if I’d like to go on the road. I was so excited and began checking out all the things I had to do like visas and this and that.

You had many opportunities to stretch out. Why did you stay around?

I was playing the First Floor Club one night with Ron Collier’s group, and Cannonball Adderley came in. He told me I should go to New York where other players were going, but I was comfortable here. I’d been to New York, Chicago, Detroit and Buffalo. I felt uncomfortable with the black-and-white situation there. We had the same thing going here, but not to that extreme. I didn’t want to deal with it. I kept asking myself why I would want to do that. Toronto wasn’t exactly the most hospitable place, but it was sure better than that. I was working and doing all the jazz gigs. I was doing radio and television shows, commercials. Why would I want to go to New York and stand on a corner with all the other underemployed jazz musicians? Besides, how many Philly Joe Jones do they need down there?