In memory of Ed Bickert, Canada’s most renowned jazz guitarist

The great Canadian jazz guitarist Ed Bickert, renowned for his five-decade career as one of the top players in Toronto — and the world — died on Thursday. He was 86.

Born in Manitoba on Nov. 29, 1932, Bickert grew up in Vernon, B.C., and moved to Toronto in 1952 to pursue a career in music, beginning as a radio engineer and then starting to work as a club performer and session musician. From the mid-‘70s until his retirement in 2000, he recorded more than a dozen albums as a band leader and more than 50 records as a sideman for Paul Desmond, Rosemary Clooney, Peter Appleyard, Moe Koffman, Phil Nimmons, Rob McConnell, Ron Collier and more.

Bickert quietly became the “secret superhero” of jazz guitar, as one guitarist and educator put it. His appearance on Desmond’s 1974 album Pure Desmond launched his international recording career. He was a rare case, in those days, of a Canadian jazz musician breaking onto the international scene while remaining based in Toronto.

“There was a great generation of musicians in Toronto who played the clubs and did session work during a glorious era for music,” says Danny Marks, host of Midday Jazz and BLUZ.FM on JAZZ.FM91. “In that era, Ed Bickert was first call. The music they made … will live on.”

Throughout his career, Bickert performed at home or on tour with Oscar Peterson, Ruby Braff, Frank Rosolino, Milt Jackson, Buddy Tate, Ernestine Anderson, Benny Carter, Lorne Lofsky, Dave McKenna, Ken Peplowski and Neil Swainson, along with his recording mates and many others.

He was especially well-known in Toronto as a charter member and featured soloist with The Boss Brass, led by Rob McConnell.

Marks remembers Bickert as a “quiet, private man” who was deeply loyal and had a kind sense of humour. Fellow host John Devenish says he admired Bickert’s “attention to detail, mannered precision, respect for the art form and generosity among and with his peers.”

“Ed Bickert’s playing represented everything that is quintessentially Canadian,” Devenish says. “Second to none, his sound was as welcoming as the collective spirit of the country. Thank you for the years of music. Thank you for the spirit.”

“I saw Ed at Pepe’s in Halifax when I was 17 years old in 1982,” JAZZ.FM91 host and music director Brad Barker recalls. “I drank water and split a salad, and our server was nice enough to let us stay for two sets. Ed with his legs crossed, playing his blond telecaster — we knew we were in the presence of greatness. Ed Bickert was a giant.”

Widely regarded as a guitar genius, Bickert was mostly self-taught and had a particular affinity for harmony.

”I really enjoy the harmonic aspect of music — not just jazz, but country and classical,” Bickert said in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen before a performance in 2000. “The harmony really turns me on, so I try to find things on the guitar that are more interesting harmonically than some of the basic grips.”

Speaking to the Toronto Star in 2012 ahead of an event in Toronto marking Bickert’s 80th birthday, Don Thompson said: “Jazz is imperfect, but Ed gets as close to perfection as it gets.”

Asked that same year why he didn’t try to reach a wider audience in the U.S., Bickert told The Globe and Mail: “I think it just comes down to a case of being kind of timid.”

He made a huge impression in his home country, though.

In 1980, his song Sackville 4005 with Don Thompson won the Juno Award for best jazz recording.

And in 1996, he became a member of the Order of Canada.

Bickert retired in 2000 following the death of his wife, Madeline.

“He will always be remembered,” says Marks. “Ed Bickert’s musicality transcended the norm. His ease in creating beautiful improv and handling melody belied how much dedication and thought he put in. Bickert was a natural and a rare breed, a modest man with the greatest gift.”