Canadian jazz pianist Wray Downes dies at 89

The pianist and educator Wray Downes, considered an “elder jazz statesman” of Canada, has died. He was 89.

“Wray was a powerhouse, such a strong and vital presence both on and off the bandstand,” Montreal musician and producer Jean-Pierre Leduc wrote on Facebook. “Wray was a true gentleman, first class. A keen intellect, fast as a whip, funny, but above all, a tender, warm and generous man who loved his friends, his wife Madeleine and his six children with all his heart.”

Born in Toronto in 1931, Downes was classically trained at the Trinity College of Music in London, England, and then the Paris Conservatory. He turned to jazz in 1953, studying harmony with Dizzy Gillespie and piano with Mary Lou Williams and working with U.S. musicians including Sidney Bechet, Buck Clayton and Bill Coleman. When Downes returned to Canada, he continued his piano studies under the tutelage of Oscar Peterson and took lessons in composition from Neil Chotem.

During his career, Downes served as a sideman to a number of jazz legends, including Roy Eldridge, Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Buddy Tate, Clark Terry, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and Lester Young. Over the years, he worked with fellow Canadian icons such as Peter Appleyard, Dave Young, Ed Bickert, Reg Schwager, Archie Alleyne, Moe Koffman and Don Thompson.

In 1990, Downes settled down in Montreal and began teaching at Concordia University, where “he would come to be revered as an elder jazz statesman for his playing and his teaching,” writes Canadian jazz journalist Mark Miller.

Upon the news of Downes’s passing, tributes poured into Facebook from those in his home of Montreal and beyond.

“Playing with Wray Downes is like holding on with one hand to the back bumper of a truck racing at high speed on a gravel road; is like a boxing fight that you are sure to lose, but as a south paw, I had a chance; is like a strange awareness of a place where every beat weighs about a thousand pounds,” wrote Montreal-based jazz drummer Michel Lambert. “Playing with Wray for more or less three decades has never been a job, but an exploration into the worlds of faith and mysteries with the safest of all guides.”

“After my dad and mom, you were the one that gave me the tools to provide for my family, and for that I will be forever grateful,” Quebec musician Michael Litresits wrote. “You will be missed old friend, and you will live on forever thanks to your music, your beautiful family and all your students who owe you an incredible debt of gratitude.”