An unearthed interview with Canadian jazz icon Moe Koffman

This article was originally published by FYIMusicNews.

I was clearing space in the basement and came across a box of cassettes from my original Jazz Report radio show at CIUT-FM some 34 years ago. Among the interviews is a spirited exchange with Canadian jazz icon Moe Koffman in 1986.

Koffman was 56 at the time and with an eye on the future. The prosperous studio scene was declining as advances in digital technology were surreptitiously expelling musicians. Koffman took it in stride and began to focus more on live performances and recordings.

Like so many young players, I called on him for the occasional gig at George’s Spaghetti House. Over the next decade, we grew to know each other quite well. I always admired his work ethic; few could match his daily practice sessions and commitment to the business. One thing about Koffman that stood above the rest was that he lived and breathed music. If there was a new kid on the block, Koffman would show up to watch and absorb. If he thought something was slipping past him, he’d run home and practice.

This is a rather lengthy conversation, but it’s worth it. Koffman was one of the finest Canadian jazz musicians of all time, and to this day he deserves thought and reflection.

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One of the most influential artists to many of us when we were younger was Cannonball Adderley. Did he have a profound effect on your playing?

He sure did. Cannonball, of course, as a result of the Bird (Charlie Parker). We all know that Cannonball was one of the finest Bird exponents in the world. I loved what Cannonball did, and I am an avid Cannonball collector. Bird is, to me, the roots of my whole influence. I go back to Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young and Johnny Hodges. When Bird and Diz came out, that’s what opened my ears, and that’s when I got involved and became what I would call a full-time jazz person.

When and where did your affiliation with Dizzy Gillespie begin?

I met Dizzy many times. He’d come to Toronto and play at a club or function. Being a fan, I made it my business to get around to meeting the guy. It wasn’t until the Monterey Jazz Festival, where our group played in 1979, [that] we played together on the same stage. I remember there was a big blackout with the electricity and before we went on everybody went out there and jammed. We had a jam session together with him and Stan Getz, myself and Dizzy and a whole bunch of people. My management company had an opportunity to book us into the Stratford Festival, and we were looking for a touring package, and we approached Dizzy and dreamt up the Dizzy and Moe super show. We’ve been booked all over the place. It’s a great package, and it’s been working well, and we’ve got a whole bunch of things booked well into the future.

What kind of tunes would you two play together?

Our program consists of my band going out for the first half, and then I bring Dizzy out after the intermission, and he does a whole bunch of his things with my rhythm section, and then he brings me on, and we do A Night in Tunisia. We then do Oop-Pop-a-Da. It’s a joy for the guys in the band, and for me, it’s just a ball, and the audience gets off on it. Not only is he a great player and a very clever man, but he’s a great show person. He can stand out there with not much of anything to do, and people break up.

I still want to vote for him for president. Have you had a group consistently since 1958?

Yes. There have been personnel changes over the years, but the group has always been in existence.

You’ve got the second steadiest gig next to the late Freddie Green of the Count Basie Orchestra. When did your association with George’s Spaghetti House begin?

George’s is a hilarious story because it was owned by a jazz fanatic by the name of Doug Cole, who was an ex-policeman who rented this location at Dundas and Sherbourne and wanted to open a restaurant. There was a hotel called George’s Hotel, and he opened up the Spaghetti House there. In those days the name George’s Spaghetti House was so tacky. That was no name for a jazz place. Today it’s hip. It’s just funny the way things turned around. He was just a jazz lover.

The jazz guys would come around, and he’d give them a room. He’d give them his shirt, a meal, and they’d hang around and jam. After the House of Hambourg thing, I got together with Doug, and I started playing there Fridays and Saturday nights from [midnight] to three in the morning, just jamming. Bass, drums and me blowing, and that’s going back over 30 years ago. And that was only weekends. He finally got a liquor license and started a six-nights-a-week policy, and I began playing there. I didn’t want to be there every night, so it turned into a situation where I thought it would be good to keep it as a house band and play every fourth week. It’s been that way ever since. It’s become the major jazz club in the country.

Give me a couple of fond memories from George’s. What are some highlights for you?

It’s been a steady musical scene where we work things out, and there have been many crazy things that have happened there. I remember one night when the club was downstairs, and it used to be lined up on weekends right around the corner and people would be pushing to get in. I remember I had just got a brand new bass flute, and the bass flute was about four feet away, and this guy was pushed and fell up against the stand. Somebody shoved him, or he was stoned right out of his head, and he fell smack into the bandstand and for leverage grabbed my bass flute. The thing bent like an umbrella, and I just cried, and I thought what am I gonna do to this guy, and he says, “Somebody pushed me.” I learned a lesson from that evening. My horns are never in the front where anybody can touch or fall over them.

One of my most significant influences, and where I come from, is Charlie Parker. I’ve got practically every Bird record. One of my favourite sides was recorded I think around 1952 with a big band with a who’s who of studio guys who were around New York at the time. Guys like Flip Phillips and Al Porcino and even Oscar Peterson playing on this recording, and it’s a big band. The arrangements were done by Joel Lippman and conducted by him and recorded on March 25, 1952, in New York. It’s a dated thing, but when Bird comes on and plays a solo, it’s just amazing how outstanding he was in those days. You can hear the virtuosity in the man’s playing. It’s a Cole Porter tune: What Is This Thing Called Love.

One Moe Time was your first jazz album since 1976.

It was an excellent time to get away from all the projects and all the concept albums, and … it was about doing an album the way the band sounds in the club and in concert. In other words, a real, honest album, done the way you’re going to hear us when people come to listen to us. The way we are.

Did you set aside time to compose?

I felt that it was time to do an album like this, so I gave studio owner Andy Hermant (Manta Sound) a call, who at that time was having some success with getting a label off the ground (Duke Street) with Jane Siberry and people like that. I said, “Andy, I do a lot of sessions at Manta Studios, you know, and I know you Andy and I’ve seen your work as an engineer. Andy, I want to do a jazz album with my band the way it is. It will be an inexpensive project.” He thought it was a great idea and said he would call. He called in a couple of weeks, and we went in and did it.

A plus for Duke Street, I’m thinking.

Absolutely. I give him all the credit, and they did a marvellous job on promotion and things like that. The album has become very successful in terms of Canadian sales. It’s a respectable 7,000 or 8,000 records sold, and that’s without any U.S. release. We get out there and tour, and that helps. People are being exposed to what we’re doing live. And it’s also word of mouth.

What’s your current association with the Boss Brass?

I’ve been with the Boss Brass ever since they had a saxophone. I don’t know if you remember that story or you’ve heard about the story. The Boss Brass started with just brass instruments, meaning no reeds, and for a gig, we got all the jazz saxophone players together during one night at the Savarin and picketed them. We just made a big fun night out of it, and even had big placards and signs: “Boss Brass: Unfair to woodwinds and unfair to reeds.” We walked right up in the middle of a tune, and it was just a big breakup, you know, and it backfired because he hired reeds. And it’s reeds ever since.

How has the audience responded to the new material on your current tours?

Very positive. I know a lot of audiences expect to hear certain pieces of music that I’m associated with. They all want to hear Swingin’ Shepherd Blues, and most of them want to listen to some classical pieces that are adapted to our style. We give them that, and we also give them some of the newer material, and they get off on it. That’s where we sell a lot of our albums.

You must have plenty of material by now.

I think we could play every night for like a year or something and never repeat. We don’t do that. We’re always playing current stuff and then put things back in the book and forget about it for a while, because you get burnt out on things if you keep doing the same things over and over. Sometimes there are pieces that people expect to hear, and so you do it. Swingin’ Shepherd Blues is a perfect example of that.

You and Cuban saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera have developed a mutual admiration for each other. How did you meet?

I went down to Cuba for a vacation — this was going back 11 years ago — and I heard about this band down there called Irakere, and they had a hot alto player in that band named Paquito D’Rivera, and I got to meet him and I got to meet a couple of other people in the band, and I met quite a few other musicians in Cuba who greeted me like a long-lost family member. They took me around and put on private concerts for me. We were like brothers. It was a marvellous association. We played together. They are hot people. It’s the same thing in Brazil when we’re down there. The musicians treat you like a family. It’s hugs and warmth, and it’s something else, you know. That’s why the music is so warm.

Jazz musicians are treated with incredible respect. Have you toured and travelled throughout Cuba?

No. There’s been much talk about it over the years, and it never came about. A couple of weeks ago I saw you down at the Bamboo Club where pianist Emiliano Salvador was playing. He told me that he was one of the people in one of the jam sessions when I was there with Paquito and he says he’s still got a tape of me playing with him. I couldn’t believe it. We were talking through an interpreter, and here again, we’re trying to open up this old file of possibly going down to Cuba on a cultural exchange basis. Who knows? We’ve tried this before, but somehow things get in the way, and you don’t know what goes on. In a way, we have the Canada Council and the touring office which helps artists with grants so they can go out there. I know a lot of our tours wouldn’t be possible without their help because the cost of travel and expenses that are involved in going out on tour these days and the amount of return that some of these smaller communities can afford to pay is minimal. The mathematics don’t add up. You can’t do it without the help of the government. In that respect, I think it couldn’t be done. So they’re doing a lot in a similar way. They indeed treat their artists with respect, and they look after them — even buy them their instruments and pay their expenses. There’s more to it than that. I don’t know if I’d want to have that kind of life. I don’t know what you would call it, but there’s more freedom here in Canada right now and in the United States, too. If you want to go a little further here, nobody’s holding you back. If you’re going to go all-in, there’s an incentive in competition. Competition forces you to get up there and do a little better than the rest.

You also have a son who’s a musician. Does dad go out to hear him play?

Oh, yes. He’s a lead trumpet player and jazz soloist with Manteca. They’re on Duke Street as well. I was just informed last week that my band and Manteca are nominated for Jazz Awards at the CASBYs. I don’t care who wins.

What’s on the horizon?

We’re out there trying to get this new album off the ground. It’s going to be out on a CD. It’s the entire content of the Moe-Mentum album plus half the cuts from the One Moe Time album, and then we’re doing some more concerts and more tours. I’m hopefully looking to the future when maybe we’ll get a little international recognition. There’s a whole new audience out there, and it’s all different. I’ve got to make it all over again. If we can get these albums hot enough where the record companies will get some incentive to put them out and maybe get some more international recognition, that’s all I’m looking for. So, we keep doing it and do what we’re doing.