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History Series: Stuart Broomer interviewed by Jennie Punter

Published on: March 8, 2021

 

“IN MONTREAL YOU HAD A MUCH MORE LIVELY JAZZ SCENE, WHEREAS IF  I WERE TO CHARACTERIZE THE TORONTO JAZZ SCENE THEN I WOULD HAVE TO START WITH THE JINGLE INDUSTRY. “

 

Jennie Punter: I’m here tonight to have a conversation with musician and writer Stuart Broomer, about his life in music. Stuart you and I know each other through our work, although when we were chatting earlier this week, we figured we were probably in the same room at concerts or events, a few, at least a few times. Now Musicworks was founded in 1978, a couple of years after the Music Gallery started, and we’re still really close friends after all that time, and it’s always a treat for me to experience Music Gallery performances and it’s an honour for me to participate in their programming. So Stuart, I know we are going to come around eventually to talking about the Music Gallery and your encounters there. You performed there but I think that maybe some people who are watching and who are familiar with you working as a writer don’t know that about your history as a musician. And it started, your relationship with music, started as a student with music. Something you and I have in common, I think of myself as a musician first, even though I haven’t worked as a professional musician for many, many years and have to find time to play, but you started out as playing piano, is that right?

Stuart Broomer: Yeah, I started studying piano as a child, I didn’t study piano for very long, but I had very indulgent parents who kept letting me take lessons on other instruments, and I took trumpet lessons for a couple of years between the ages of say 10 and 12, guitar lessons for a few years, and this is actually after childhood piano lessons. I learned how to play bass in a high school orchestra, some ways its related to a guitar in ways of tuning it and ways like that. So I had this sort of broad education in musical instruments and it was in a time in the late 50s, at a time in Toronto where you could find absolutely the most extraordinary instructors. So I actually had, so maybe in the late 50s I would have been 11-ish, 12, I had a trumpet teacher in his mid 80s, named Edward Smeal, who in the 1890s had actually played with John Phillip Sousa.

Jennie Punter: Wow.

Stuart Broomer: He had actually spent quite a bit of time in the trumpet section with the TSO. So I had this, you know, really extraordinary luck in having these incredible musicians for teachers, who had really refined skills. I had a guitar teacher for a couple of years named Geoff Townsend.

J: oh wow.

S: Geoff Townsend in the late 50s, in 1960, 61 around there, and he had an autographed, dedicated photograph of Eddie Lang the first great jazz guitarist.

J: oh wow.

S: Lang, who died in 1932, was on the wall as, you know, one was taking lessons. It was sort of Eddie Lang looking down at you, and there was another photograph of Geoff Townsend because he had replaced Eddie Lang and the Bing Crosby Trio.

J: oh wow.

S: So there was a picture of Townsend on an airport tarmac, with a little 1930s plane in the background and standing beside Bing Crosbyin Hollywood.

J: I love Bing Crosby, yeah I have to say.

S: So it’s absolutely so because Toronto was so small and had these sort of almost anonymous people who were so distinguished, it gave me a sense that you can probably do anything.

J: Yeah you know it’s interesting, my dad, my dad who’s a church musician you know he worked as a church musician here in Toronto and when he was a teenager he studied with Healey Willan and my dad has similar stories to yours, not to get into my dad’s stories but very similar here in Toronto. Access to some amazing people, he studied cello for a couple of years. I was interested in, like when you’re talking about these different instruments, was that was that kind of self-directed thing on your part, like when you think back to exploring different instruments.

S: Very much so.

J: Yeah, yeah.

S: And for some reason I just developed a reasonable vocabulary of knowledge on, you know, three or four instruments anyway.

J: Well piano is what they always say, I found this too, piano is, that’s my instrument, a good foundation for other instruments and there’s something about, I don’t know if you found that you played in a different in a different way when you, when you took on another instrument, you would kind of just really focus on that instrument and kind of put aside.

S: it was all fairly rudimentary and, like, at that point I mean you know learning an instrument when you’re a young child, so the trumpet’s sort of replaced the piano and then the guitar and trumpet went on simultaneously but because I’m much better cut out to be a guitar player in some ways than I am a trumpet player, the guitar naturally took over from, from the trumpet.  I mean the guitar didn’t give me headaches, it didn’t hurt my teeth, things like that.

J: and what kind of music were you playing when you were learning those instruments? Was it kind of still classical music or?

S: classical music, mostly rudimentary exercises with the guitar. I actually reached the point where I could read Johnny Smith transcriptions, skills that I don’t have today because I just, I haven’t read music on a guitar for like decades and decades.

J: Right and so your kind of like a lot of musicians and music writers, was there a point when you when you were a teenager where there was sort of some pivotal events or encounters that kind of drew you more deeply into music, because you started writing at quite a young age.

S: You know, I mean, because if there was a place in 1961, 62 that was smaller and emptier than Toronto. It was probably free jazz so, so when I can sort of date, I could literally date my encounter with free jazz and my encounter with free jazz was in print rather than in actual sound. I picked up a copy of Metronome Magazine in September of 1961. This was about 3 months before it ceased to exist, because high- end thoughtful jazz magazines have seldom lived very long.

 

 

J: Can you just give us a brief aside and tell us what is, what is Metronome or what was Metronome?

S: Metronome was a jazz music, jazz magazine that survived from somewhere in the 1940s until the end of 19611 and they would write almost scholarly articles about jazz as opposed to magazines that were relatively practically owned by, at that time, the record industry, and now are practically owned by college band programs and instrument manufacturers that actually dictate the content of glossy jazz magazines. So this article was about the avant-garde and I couldn’t understand all of it but it was written by Amiri Baraka, then LeRoi Jones, and it just had this magnetic attraction for me because of its, its promise of rebellion, freedom, etc. and within a couple of months, I think I had clipped pictures of Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane out of it for a grade nine occupation project.

J: Occupation like.

S: Yes.

J: like who you wanted to be.

S: I wanted to be a musician, but maybe my choice in pictures was I wanted to freak someone out.

J: Right well you’re a teenager.

S: Just a teenager at that point so soon after, I sort of saved up enough money to start buying records. I had a few jazz records and I’d heard Miles Davis a couple of years before, and I really liked that, but I bought a couple of Ornette Coleman records in the winter of 1962 and immediately fell in love with them because they were insane, they were like fast and crazy and dense and formless in some ways and brilliant and that actually sort of became my musical goal at a really early age.

J: So at that time, so you’re still in high school at this point right in High school at this point. So when you…was their anybody else, like any of your friends or adults that you might see at the record store or whatever. Was this a very solitary kind of pursuit at this point or were you starting to make connections with it.

S: I had a couple of friends, a couple years ahead of me in high school who I got to know fairly soon, like Norman Snyder, the late Norman Snyder who’s a well known writer and we played bass in the same high school symphony orchestra. I mean he was in the later version of it than I was ???based on an imperial career ??? who were friends of mine in high school. So I like, I knew my high school’s beatniks anyway, .but at the time, the sort of magnet for jazz in Toronto was the jazz department of Sam the Record Man…which had all of these, this extraordinary collection of records, because it had basically been set up by John Norris who’d been editing Coda since he started it I think in 1958. So I was about 14 years old at the time, I walked into Sam the Record Man.

J: And we’re saying, sorry to interrupt. Coda is a magazine.

S: Yes Coda is a magazine that was started by John Norris who was a heroic English jazz fan who eventually started the Sackville record company and the Jazz and Blues Centre with Bill Smith who arrived in Canada, I think, in 1963. So Sam’s was actually an amazing hang, I even worked there in the jazz department for a while when I was about 17 and which became a, you know, a great opportunity to listen to records and things I mean you just had to learn to play the Albert Ayler Records quietly by the time they arrived.

J: Or after everybody was???.

S: Or when the police were saying,???  In fact, you could only play them when the place was empty or with three other people there who actually liked it.

J: Those are the moments that I like to be in that department is you know when nobody there and the person working there is like playing something weird.

S: oh yeah.

S: It was also a store that had, it had every Bud Powell record and Charles Mingus record available, so it was, it was an amazing place and anybody who was seriously interested in that kind of music would come to that place. I mean my most famous customers were probably Phil Ochs and Lonnie Johnson because the jazz section was split with the folk section.

J: Right.

S: So that sort of certainly sped up my exposure.

J: Yeah you’re working at Sam’s, you’re playing music.

S: Yeah I mean I would go to jazz jam sessions like regular, weekly jam sessions when I was 16 and discovered that I knew nothing about chord changes and probably well, yeah, right, it was the kind of jazz that cares about nothing but chord changes. So I realized that, you know, that that did not exactly fit the direction that I was interested in but, and…I mean I knew there were chord changes, I just wasn’t very good at playing them. So then I started writing about jazz when I was 16 for Coda this is before I actually worked in the record store.

J: Tell me, can you tell me a little bit of how that connection happened because that’s quite young. You would have still been in high school at that point.

S: Oh yeah yeah.

J: And a lot of people kind of start, if they start young it’s usually maybe at university like for the university paper but how did this come about? Did you know you wanted to? Had you or did it just kind of.

S: Yeah, no it just didn’t, it just seemed. I always, I always wrote, so I was  pretty good at it as a 16yr old, so for a couple of years I wrote fairly regularly for about 2-3 years as my musical impulses gradually took over and the things, the things dovetailed because the people that I knew at the jazz and blue center like John Norris and the people I would meet there like Bill Smith and other young musicians that I would meet there were virtually the people who were most interested in stretching jazz and so forth. When I started writing for Coda, I probably knew more about Avant-Garde Jazz than anybody else I had met in Toronto and it was just I’d heard all the records, I you know. I had the sheet music of Ornette Coleman and things like that, hard to come by.

J: And so were you primarily writing about recordings or were you also talking to musicians or what kind of writing were you doing.

S: Okay mostly I was writing about recordings, there is that thing that there was very little free jazz being played in Toronto, there were very few performers coming through before later 1965 for instance.

J: Who would come through, who didn’t come through?

S: You know the ones that I, some of the ones I remember from then, I mean Ornette Coleman would play occasionally. I’m not sure when he played the Town Tavern.

Right.

S: So that sort of certainly sped up my exposure.

J: Yeah you’re working at Sam’s, you’re playing music.

S: Yeah I mean I would go to jazz jam sessions like regular, weekly jam sessions when I was 16 and discovered that I knew nothing about chord changes and probably well, yeah, right, it was the kind of jazz that cares about nothing but chord changes. So I realized that, you know, that that did not exactly fit the direction that I was interested in but, and…I mean I knew there were chord changes, I just wasn’t very good at playing them. So then I started writing about jazz when I was 16 for Coda this is before I actually worked in the record store.

J: Tell me, can you tell me a little bit of how that connection happened because that’s quite young. You would have still been in high school at that point.

S: Oh yeah yeah.

J: And a lot of people kind of start, if they start young it’s usually maybe at university like for the university paper but how did this come about? Did you know you wanted to? Had you or did it just kind of.

S: Yeah, no it just didn’t, it just seemed. I always, I always wrote, so I was  pretty good at it as a 16yr old, so for a couple of years I wrote fairly regularly for about 2-3 years as my musical impulses gradually took over and the things, the things dovetailed because the people that I knew at the jazz and blue center like John Norris and the people I would meet there like Bill Smith and other young musicians that I would meet there were virtually the people who were most interested in stretching jazz and so forth. When I started writing for Coda, I probably knew more about Avant-Garde Jazz than anybody else I had met in Toronto and it was just I’d heard all the records, I you know. I had the sheet music of Ornette Coleman and things like that, hard to come by.

J: And so were you primarily writing about recordings or were you also talking to musicians or what kind of writing were you doing.

S: Okay mostly I was writing about recordings, there is that thing that there was very little free jazz being played in Toronto, there were very few performers coming through before later 1965 for instance.

J: Who would come through, who didn’t come through?

S: You know the ones that I, some of the ones I remember from then, I mean Ornette Coleman would play occasionally. I’m not sure when he played the Town Tavern.

Jennie Punter: Would it be like the situation where they’d be locals that he would play with or not.

Stuart Broomer: Oh no it would be with, no Ornette would only play with his band, I mean.

J: His guys.

S: Yeah it was, but I’m not sure if it was, I’m not actually sure when I saw Ornette live, it might have been later because of course when you are 16 and the drinking age is 21, you can’t get into bars to hear those bands, right? So some of the first things I remember that really impressed me, I’d started playing with people I’d met who were interested in the same kind of music, 1965, we would have played at early in the year, we would have played yeah, Bohemian Embassy which was the title before it became a kind of condo development. It literally thought of itself as the embassy for Bohemians and they did poetry readings.

J: Yeah, I’m aware of its poetry and the spoken word and greetings.

S: Yeah, it was very active in borderline Bohemian culture, and towards the end of 1965, the poet Victor Coleman who was one of the people who had organized the Bohemian Embassy would arrange these very brief tours, Detroit and  Toronto where a couple of New York musicians would join the Detroit Contemporary Four, an early sort of free bop band in Detroit, as guests. Then that little package would come to Toronto and play at the Bohemian Embassy. So it’s how I got to know Marion Brown.

 

J: Quite interesting stuff and I’m only just kind of starting to learn a little bit more about some of the really interesting Detroit musicians. Sort of more Avant-Garde jazz musicians, I, you know, think about other larger or not larger but different American cities a lot of the time but there was quite a lot of activity and still is in that area so.

S: The really stand-out musician in the DC4 was the pianist Stanley Cowell.

J: Yeah.

S: He had a distinguished New York career.

J: Yeah exactly, so where would these, would these shows be at the Bohemian Embassy?

S: Yeah.

J: When did, what about that whole A Space thing we were talking about too.

S: A Space was later.

J: It was a bit late or is it like.

S: The mid 70s, I mean I’m not sure, I can’t really date A Space, when A Space started, but the performances I remember from A Space would be from the mid- 70s whether it was other performers or myself.

J: And so when, at these shows when you, when there would be musicians from out of town coming and playing these sort of smaller places, would it be kind of the same crap you know, free jazz crowd audience that would be at all the same shows.

S: Oh yeah it was a pretty…like I think a lot of people would go because they were curious, It was being promoted to people who might not have been that aware of that music. I mean I’m not sure…When Marion Brown first played at the Bohemian Embassy, he might have had one record out on ESP so it’s very small,a very rare scene.

J: And were you aware of any like media attention to any of this stuff or was it purely just through.

S: Very little media attention, it was possible to get media attention in Toronto fairly easily maybe in my own case a couple of years later too easy but.

J: What do you mean by that, let’s just pause here.

S: My favorite review that I ever received is probably from a very well-known Canadian journalist named Robert Fulford who wrote “Stuart Broomer’s music leaves me longing for a quick death” and my immediate response was that had always been my intention.

J: I love it, do you remember the show what show was it, what band was it.

S: It may have been, it was probably, it may have been at Expo 67. Where I had put together a small travelling band to play with Michael Snow in an environmental piece at Expo 67.

J: So who was in that band?

S: Who’s in that band…trombonist Harvey Brodhecker who I played with for a couple of years. A saxophonist named Jim Falconbridge who by then I’d been playing with for a couple of years. A trumpet player named Pierre Rochon, another trumpet player named Robert George. These would have been the people that I’d gone there with, but it was sort of just happenstance. I mean that was…like…who I happened to be playing with in the summer of 1967 or it could have been a performance, where we were providing a live soundtrack for Joyce Wieland’s Bill’s Hat. Which would have been in, I think, June 67. These are like major cultural events at the time, but yeah so that review would have been one of those.

 

Jennie Punter: Yeah well that was…

Stuart Broomer: Was performances.

J: People of a certain age, I wasn’t alive then.

S: it’s 53 years ago.

J: Yeah, so I mean we’re talking a bit earlier, I was kind of interested in how, you’re playing a lot. People are coming to town, you’re writing. I’m always curious about, I mean I’ll say briefly like my thing and then see if yours is the same and if it’s not I want to hear it. I kind of only realized sort of a little bit later in my career that being a musician was for me, kind of just like breathing or whatever. And I kind of looked at my writing about music, I just was a music fan and then a musician and then I kind of realized that understanding how to play, you know there was something that kind of helped me I think a little bit or that even though I didn’t, wasn’t aware of drawing from it. That I think, I think it probably helped me as an interviewer and I only realized this more after the fact. Not that I have read a lot of my old pieces but often when I would be you know transcribing an interview or something like that. So I was kind of wondering, if you had a similar thing or what your relationship was between the two because you know when you’re playing is quite different than listening to a record and thinking about it and writing about it but what’s that sort of relationship that must have been at that time for you.

S: I don’t know, I think they were the two things that I was, I’d always be interested in. As long as I was interested in things, was writing things and music. So writing about music just seemed like the most natural thing in the world and since it was, I mean since at the beginning there was nobody to play with but I could write things and get them published. I guess I wrote more and more, it was also a huge learning experience. I mean at the time, I would I actually write like 2000-word reviews of Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch.

J: Right oh my god.

S: Or Archie Shepp, Four For Trane, so It was like, it was like a kind of absolute freedom that I was, you know, that it was just very nice and there was hardly anyone else. I don’t know of anyone else in Toronto who was actually writing much about that music and you wouldn’t even find that much about it in many of the glossies. I mean I would diligently read the New York column, in downbeat by then still LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka2) and I would know about these bands that have never been recorded or never played anywhere but in New York for a day and you know I would wish I could hear them.

J: Right, if you, I’d love to hear just a little bit more about, you writing for Coda were you, were you was your involvement with Coda like deeper than that in the sense that like did you have meetings? I mean what was, maybe tell us about the vibe.

S: Actually it was, it was actually really a really beautiful social event because until 67 I think, it was actually mimeographed and stapled together.

J: All right.

S: And it was stapled together at these collating meetings at John Norris’s apartment which became a really interesting discovery for me because what we would do, we would just have you know stacks of pages around a table and we would walk around the table assembling it. Assembling, collating, and stapling these pages and we would take turns playing music and one of my favourite musical partners from those like 65, 66, 67 years was a man named Jim Falconbridge who’s still alive today in the wilds of BC and Jim would at the time, the only kind of music that he liked was very traditions New Orleans jazz as typified by musicians like George Lewis.

J: Right.

S: Not contemporary George Lewis but George who was born the same year as Louis Armstrong and played music as if it were 1920 and Jim was, I mean he was amiable enough, but he absolutely hated music that was complicated or, yeah, complicated pretty much, and if anything that he heard seemed complicated, he would call it “bebop” and absolutely hated it. So now there might be seven or eight people doing this. Jim would ask for like a Kid Thomas or, you know, Big Jim Robinson or George Lewis record. All these records made by people who were, would eventually be commemorated in Preservation Hall and I would always ask for an Albert Ayler record or if I was being really mean, I would ask for a Giuseppe Logan record, and the first time Jim heard Albert Ayler, he loved it. If you asked for another common record, he would describe Ornette Coleman as “bebop” because he hated the same things about Ornette Coleman that he hated about Charlie Parker.

J: Right.

S: It was complicated, but once he heard something that just sounded like, you know, humans and animals wailing and screaming and just throwing their soul out of a musical instrument, he loved it. So Jim and I were almost made for each other as musicians and we played together from you know very late 65 until mid 67 and we would see each other again years later. He lived in London Ontario for a while I remember playing with him about eight years later.

J: Right, so you were telling me we were speaking earlier this week that you were writing very intensely about music. Sort of early in your life and then you kind of step back from it.

S: Yeah, I stopped being a jazz critic from the beginning of 1967 when I became really active as a musician for a while and then I took up writing about music again, except for the very odd thing that I might have written, around 1990. When I suddenly had, had a sort of hole in my life, I wasn’t doing musical things and CDs had replaced Vinyl and I wanted to build up a quick jazz collection so I started writing about jazz again.

J: So let’s talk about, so the writing is a little bit, I’m sure you were writing but not necessarily about music but so you were really in terms of music, you were really focused more on performing at that time and there was something I wanted to kind of just get back to, it doesn’t get necessarily back to the 60s but just in terms of you know outside players of some influence that may have come in that there may have been performances or shows or you know even residencies I from time to time I’ve heard these kinds of stories and I’m sort of just wondering whether you know as someone who was playing but also whether to see music whether, what your thoughts were about that because I know that there are sort of different streams. You know obviously musicians developing on their own but there’s something often about when someone comes through town, maybe stays for a while and people start.

S: Yeah very much so, I remember a concert at the AGO by John Cage in 1966 that was really wonderful, and also a great place to meet people that you’d only nodded to before. The concerts at the Bohemian Embassy that I mentioned, Marion Brown, another one was Andrew Hill who was just, you know, just a great person to meet and talk to.

Photograph by Shigeko Kubota. Courtesy of the John Cage Trust.

 

Jennie Punter: I love him so much, I was looking at that, I think it’s Changes or.

Stuart Broomer: Yeah and then later on at the Music Gallery, I remember seeing performances by the English saxophonist Evan Parker who’s still performing today and still brilliant and I think one of the major musicians of the last 50 years. I saw, I recall seeing the English guitarist Derek Bailey, at the Music Gallery playing solo as well and Derek is a musician of enormous influence. He passed 16 years ago on Christmas as a matter of fact but Derek was just an extraordinarily iconoclastic musician I mean sort of playing the guitar in the most, almost brittle and pointless way that was almost technically impossible to do and yet had results that sounded like they were an accident which is always the greatest thing to watch.

J: So those guys would come through town, would they be playing at the Music Gallery or before the Music Gallery?

S: Those were specifically at the Music Gallery.

J: Yeah and that would have been in the 70, the 70s Music Gallery or?

S: The 70s for Evan, very early 80s for Derek.

J: Now were there any other kind of hubs at that time here in Toronto that were presenting this kind of music.

S: I mean A Space from the mid 70s, in the mid 70s especially and I think that more and more of that moved to the Music Gallery but I recall seeing Anthony Braxton with Kenny Wheeler and Dave Holland and Barry Altschul, a great early Braxton band at A Space in the mid 70s.

J: In terms of your own performance of playing during that time in the 70s. Did you have one particular band, were you mostly playing? What was the nature of your music?

S: In the mid 70s, I did quite a few, like quite a few solo piano things but I also played in duets with Bill Smith and the drummer John Mars. Bill had a huge hand by the way in organizing those A Space concerts just as he had had a significant hand in the Bohemian Embassy activities and also co-running the Jazz and Blues Record Centre with John Norris. So with them, with the saxophonist Maury Coles, with the drummer Larry Dubin, and those are people that I played with pretty regularly in the mid 70s to later 70s.

J: And what kind of music were you playing like what would you, if you were to you know hang some terms, was it improvised music or.

S: Oh yeah improvised music, I mean I, in some ways I used to like using organized frameworks but often I mean I remember having a sextet concert at, at A Space and one of the pieces I wrote was, I allowed you to play any note in any way except A and then handed it to 5 other musicians who either couldn’t possibly do that or wouldn’t do that, right?, and I would just enjoy the sort of friction, the gentle smiling friction of asking people…it was something that. It would be really interesting to do that with musicians who could do it.

J: Right, yeah.

S: But it probably would be a lot less animated and have far fewer A’s in it.

J: But there could be a flats and a sharps, just not.

S: Yeah, No, no, it was only A that I didn’t want.

J: And did you do much, I know that you were talking about New York at some point we were speaking earlier this week. Did you do much, were you doing much traveling related to music in the world?

S: Not a lot, as a musician, I don’t think I ever got much further than Buffalo. I mean New York would just be listening visits, gallery visits and things like that but I didn’t play.

J: You were mentioning Detroit earlier, was there.

S: Oh yeah, there was some I think, I got, I guess well Detroit is further than Buffalo, isn’t it? So I managed to get to Detroit and play a couple of times.

J: And what about I mean, I’ve learned so much since I started at Musicworks about there’s much more to learn about Montreal musicians instead of working in the same kind of space, was there much of a connection between the, the scene for lack of a better word that you were kind of part of here and what was going on in Montreal. Were you aware of what was going on in Montreal?

S: I didn’t, I was a little aware of what was going on Montreal, I played in Montreal a couple of times

J: or come back.

S: It’s very different just for one thing. I think because of the politically radical community in Montreal and because of the Afro-Canadian population in Montreal, you had a much more lively jazz scene, whereas if I were to characterize the Toronto jazz scene then I would have to start with the jingle industry.

J: so they’re right.

S: So they’re different universes, a couple of years ago Eric Normand of Rimouski and Tour De Bras Records had put out a set, a couple of years ago of extraordinary unreleased music by the Quartet de Jazz Libre du Quebec, and that’s not a band that would ever play outside of Quebec. If it played outside of Quebec, the RCMP would have followed them, quite frankly, and so there was a club at the time in Montreal called the Barrel in the 60s, in ‘66, ’67. If Marion Brown played in Toronto for a couple of nights, at the Bohemian Embassy, Marion would have played for a week at the Barrel. I mentioned that performance earlier at Expo 67. I’ve written a memoire, part of this that is somewhere online I’m sure, but the night, the night before we played there, the band of like 5 people were going to be sleeping on the floor somewhere. I was insomniac and I always have been, so instead of staying there rolling around keeping everyone awake, I went for a walk, in the general direction of the Barrel. I didn’t know who would be playing there, I would see the sign, and the greatest saxophone sound I’ve ever heard was coming out the door…Albert Ayler. So I stayed there until 4 o’clock in the morning, just went to breakfast with the band, talked to Albert extensively about music. I always remembered it as one of the most important things I ever learned about jazz. I had recently stopped being a bass player because I couldn’t afford to repair my bass and I couldn’t afford amplification that would make it fit in with any of the music we were playing, so by then I was, I almost shouldn’t say this, on that particular tour I was playing soprano saxophone and drums.

Jennie Punter: Wow.

Stuart Broomer: I was really enjoying picking up musical instruments that I only knew the most rudimentary things about right, I mean it was really free improvisation.

J: Totally.

S: And I remember talking to Albert and he was asking me about, what instruments were in the band? And he said, “No bass?” and I said well, “No bass. I can play bass, but I don’t play bass in this band,” and he said “Oh wow, man, you know you couldn’t do that in New York, if you didn’t have a bass player on stage people would think it was weird.” Now in Ayler’s bands you couldn’t hear the bass players, sometimes he had great bass players, sometimes he didn’t, but he actually felt about the jazz industry that he had to have a bass player on stage with him because it looked right.

J: Right.

S: And that tells you something: if the conventions of jazz were so strict they affected Albert Ayler that way, you know so I think that’s probably, that’s the distinction…

J: Yeah.

S: …that one would make between free jazz and free improvisation. Yeah, in free improvisation, you’re free not to have a bass player.

J: There’s one, that’s one rule number, rule number one.

S: Yes.

J: I want to skip to the 90s because we don’t have too much time left and sort of get back into some of your experiences of writing and obviously you know I’m quite familiar with your writing and particularly some of the articles that you’ve written for Musicworks and one of the things that when we were first, you know, communicating working together, that I knew about you was that you were very interested in large ensemble free music, and so I think there were a couple of pieces that were published in Musicworks before I started that I was aware of and you since wrote about. You know what Nate Wooley’s doing with Seven Storey Mountain. Eric Normand which I, I had sort of known a bit about through you and then since reading that piece, you know we I’ve just learned so much and also the piece that you wrote about Roscoe for us and I think you also did the liner notes for the Roscoe Mitchell Montreal-Toronto Art Orchestra. So tell me a bit about that, I mean that obviously is an interest of yours that was going on for a long time so id love to know a little bit about sort of the roots of that and your interest as a writer. I’m assuming that there is also some connection with you as a player but tell me a bit about that because you know before you’re talking about smaller ensembles. Now we’re getting big.

S: I mean the biggest band I ever managed to have in the 60s was like an 8-piece band which I loved.

J: Yeah.

S: And I think the thing about it is that with larger improvisation ensembles you get different musical languages that everybody has a kind of…like, every musician especially improvising musician has a kind of idiolect. They do something that nobody else does, right?, because they put their language together in a different order with different materials, so when you get a large ensemble together you get this kind of congress of people. Well, it’s like “a parliament of fowls,” but you get these different languages going together, musical languages combining, people listening carefully to each other, people ignoring each other. You get this vast social microcosm and once you hit 6 people in an improvised ensemble…unless they’ve all taken vows of semi-silence, which, yeah, I mean there is that style, right, but even then, there are all these little agreements and negotiations and digressions and avoidances. It’s an extraordinarily complex social language and because it isn’t matrixed in the sense of traditional musical forms, it’s much more open to individual personalities’ inventions. So it’s as, as an artistic form, it’s very close to the idea of anarcho-syndicalism where you literally have a society that’s organized in loose units that interact freely, and so I see large scale improvisation as a kind of social model, kind of ideal social model for people finding ways to get along and tolerate and stay out of each other’s ways and you know and understand one another. For that particular reason, I’m interested in it as a social forum…

J: Yeah.

S:...and musical form.

J: Right, I’m fascinated by that aspect as well and it’s been interesting to kind of learn a bit about that through your work and just through starting to understand some concepts myself and learning about conduction which I really didn’t know much about before and especially your piece about Éric Normand. I’d love you to talk a little bit about sort of discovering Rimouski’s and Éric’s, that whole scene because I found that truly unique and fascinating and I’m still you know a new player, tell me about every knot.

S: Well I just, I haven’t been to Rimouski but I mean, when I first started hearing them, I heard them at Victoriaville, hearing their records. Talking to friends who have been there, Evan Parker and John Butcher, and Scott Thompson who had helped set those things up, I think. Its astonishing. Rimouski is a town in the Gaspé. Hundreds and hundreds of miles from any major city, it has a population of 46 000 people, from my point of view, it’s probably somewhere above the Arctic Circle, although I know I have a skewed point of view about cold weather.

J: Right.

S: And yet they have this improvising orchestra of something like 15 people, that through the good graces of the Québec government has now managed to tour Europe, but it’s mostly the fact that they exist and they’ve devoted these tremendous energies to this scene, all based on Éric’s, you know, just intense commitment to free improvisation, it’s a wonderful thing. It’s, you know in a weird way, the healthiest scene that I know of. Otherwise, one that’s healthier because it’s a city of over a million, is Lisbon and because it’s not economically grueling. Playing music isn’t potentially lucrative particularly, so you get a much more open, much more creative scene, so where Rimouski has one GGRIL (Grand groupe régional d’improvisation libérée), there are multiple bands like that in Lisbon, often sharing people but anywhere from 10 people to 35 people, playing improvised music and they’ll have the same members that will overlap and one person Ernesto Rodrigues is responsible for organizing a different one every week practically.

J: Wow.

S: But it’s an astonishing thing to be in a community of musicians that are that collectivized in terms of their ultimate musical interests, so they all play in little groups as well but those big groups are quite thrilling.

J: I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about your experience with the Montreal Toronto Art Orchestra and Roscoe Mitchell and just seeing that come together because that there are obviously probably challenges there for the timing and people.

Stuart Broomer: I sort of arrived at the rehearsals, I didn’t…you know, I wasn’t party to the organizational hassles which I mean must have been tremendous, but apart from a few opportunities for individual soloists to distinguish themselves, for example, Yves Charest, one of the most underrated musicians in the world who does some really wonderful things, but that was essentially a band playing composed music and It was much harder than normal composed music because it was transcribed and orchestrated improvisation so what the orchestra itself was primarily doing was reading this incredibly complicated music that had been transcribed from improvisations.

Right, right, so yeah it was, it was like a, it was like shock therapy watching something that complicated being rehearsed and with that level of detail and for me it’s obviously an interesting project and Roscoe has pursued it with an Icelandic Symphony Orchestra as well, with individual soloists sort of guesting with these transcriptions of what began as trio music literally and then it scaled up to like 18 musicians. So you didn’t get hearing it either in concert or especially in rehearsal, you didn’t get a strong sense of people improvising. You got a strong sense of people literally line by line rehearsing.

Jennie Punter: Wow yeah amazing.

S: Very, very unusual.

J: For the last, for the last while you have been sort of doing quite a bit of music writing when we’re talking earlier this year you mentioned, you know some more in you know intense periods but now you kind of, partly due to circumstances of this year you’ve kind of stepped back from, well from your from your job.

S: Yeah.

J: And now also for music writing, writing about music rather and but I wonder you know when you’re, when you’re, are you still listening, what are you listening to these days, is it a very different kind of music or then.

S: Well I, I’ve really been doing like a lot of reviewing, just recently it seems so I’ve been listening to a lot of recent improvised music which is mostly what I write about, but a lot of my go-to music, if I’m just listening to music, is like old music, like medieval music up to early Baroque music, you know, so I’ve been, I’ve been listening to a lot of that. For some reason I’ve developed an interest over the last few years in early 18th century opera so I listened to a lot of 18th century opera and its origins actually had a significant improvised component in it.

J: Yeah I was going to say.

S: It turns out.

J: Yeah.

S: Certain musical philosophy anyways. So I listened to that and I have another writing project that I’ve been working on and off for forever that involves rockabilly and early blues and that’s like going to be my main activity for the next 6 weeks or so.

J: Is this music or writing?

S: It could eventually become some kind of performance piece but it’s mainly writing, it’s mainly a writing exercise.

J: Alright and also are you still doing any soundtrack work, cause I know that.

S: Yeah, I have this, I have this steady gig with my son Stephen to make sound tracks for his films, which is great, I really enjoy that, and it’s really so much better than performing because the soundtracks go there for you and you don’t have to…you don’t have to tour.

J: Right so and last I just, I hope that I’ll be able to control you into writing a review or two for Music Works and stay in touch but I just wondered if you had any, if I could just ask you a few, sort of quick questions just about, about firsts. Do you remember the first album that you bought with your own money?

S: Yeah.

J: We should prepare you for this question.

S: No it’s a Columbia record called The Sound of Jazz. It was a recording studio version of the 1957 television show called The Sound of Jazz with Billy Holiday, Jimmy Giuffre, Thelonious Monk, etc. Monk was on the TV show, but he wasn’t on the record. Mal Waldron was. and it was the first thing I learned to copy on the piano.

Jennie Punter: Right and do you remember the first musical concert, like not necessarily jazz but do you remember the first time you went to see or an early live music experience like by professional musicians.

Stuart Broomer: Early live music, I think might have been Carlos Montoya at the Eaton Auditorium on top of the old, top of the old Eaton College street.

J: Alright, what do you remember about it?

S: Oh well I don’t, I wouldn’t have been about 11 or 12 I guess, I must have heard music earlier than that but no I really loved him, I mean it’s very much polished performance flamenco for market but still very exciting and technically brilliant.

J: Excellent, well I feel like we could probably talk all night about music.

S: We really could.

J: Yeah I think we are good.

S: Thank you very much.

J: To say good night and thanks for watching and listening everyone and we’ll talk soon Stuart.

S: Thank you.

Jennie Punter: Have a good night.

Stuart Broomer: You too.

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