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Thanks, Doudou, for the best jazz

February 2011

The name Rouè-Doudou Boicel is hardly on the tip of most Montrealers’ tongues. He’s not Guy Lafleur, Céline Dion or Oscar Peterson. But for fans of jazz and blues, Boicel’s place in the city’s cultural history is secure.

Thirty-five years after he launched the Rising Sun Club on Ste. Catherine, just east of Bleury, following the city’s first international jazz festival in 1978, Boicel is being honoured by the Black Theatre Workshop during Black History month.

He is getting well-deserved credit for presenting leading jazz and blues musicians in his clubs during those lean years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when artists of stature struggled under the omnipresent shadow of rock.

Boicel tells many fascinating anecdotes in his book, L’Histoire du Rising Sun et ses légendes jazz & blues (Michel Brulé), such as the lessons he learned from drummer Art Blakey on how to handle American jazz musicians. Blakey, the first name musician Boicel had hired, threatened to cancel his six-day gig and “break my face,” Boicel recalled.

I first saw Rahsaan Roland Kirck at the old Esquire Show Bar on Stanley. He is the blind saxophonist whose roots-based music seeped in the blues speaks of Africa, slavery, and struggles for liberation.

He used to play two or three reed instruments simultaneously, two in his mouth and one in his nose! At his first Rising Sun gig, Kirck had to adapt his flute so he could play it, as one of his hands was paralyzed. He played it vertically.

Dizzy Gillespie, considered by many the greatest modern jazz trumpeter, was most devoted to Boicel and the Rising Sun, and would often play in the club with no contract, only a verbal understanding. One of my best memories is the so-called Concert of the Century, which Boicel organized at Place des Arts in November 1980.

Doudou Boicel is being honoured during Black History month.

Salle Wilfrid Pelletier was filled to hear a to-die-for lineup of bebop giants: Gillespie, bassist Ray Brown, pianist Hank Jones, saxophonist James Moody and drummer Philly Joe Jones. There was no rehearsal and they did not know beforehand what they’d play. It was supposed to be dedicated to Charlie Parker. Oh, one other little problem: Jones had had too much to drink.

The not-immodest Boicel calls it “the greatest jazz concert ever in Canada, possibly the world.”

I would beg to differ. That title is reserved for the May 1953 concert at Massey Hall in Toronto, which featured Parker and Gillespie, bassist Charles Mingus, pianist Bud Powell and drummer Max Roach.

The Montreal gig was historic because of the personnel, but it was more of a friendly, if somewhat uncertain reunion. I was sitting close enough to the stage to hear Brown on a couple of numbers calling out the chord changes to James Moody. Hardly the stuff of jazz immortality.

But there was no shortage of memorable concerts in the club. Saxophonist Dexter Gordon would fill the Rising Sun.

Tall, elegant, proud and brilliant, Gordon was a lifetime substance abuser. When he came on stage, appearing unsteady, we wondered whether he would make it or collapse. Then, in his mellifluous voice, he would poetically introduce a standard. Once he blew the first notes, he transformed the room with his huge and warm tone, those marvellous accents and trills sending chills up our spines.

Few guests to the club generated as much excitement as pianist Bill Evans, whom I first saw playing solo at New York’s Village Vanguard in the winter of 1962, opening for Charles Mingus. The introspective Evans was a do-more-with-less musician, an evocative player who enhanced the standards, extending them with dream-like solos, capturing romance in an unsentimental way.

Evans, who died in 1980, played three engagements at the club. After the first piece on the first night, he rose from his bench and, according to Boicel, declared: “I can’t play with this f***ing piano. I need another piano.” He returned to the instrument, finished the gig, and the next night got a grand piano that met his demanding standards, the highest in music.

I was also there the night Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson opened with a local funk band that was not quite up to playing with the bluesy Mr. Cleanhead. Saxophonist Bob Mover was there and, after sharing a pipe with Vinson, showed the backup band the kind of rhythm it takes to support the visiting artist.

I witnessed the great but temperamental Nina Simone on opening night at Rockhead’s Paradise, a club Boicel bought on St. Antoine St. and de la Montage. She had just been released from a mental hospital, Boicel has written, and when she started her show, it was close to midnight. Her set was strange, but nobody there regretted hearing this legend in person. Though many dozens of eager fans were waiting, she declined to do her second set.

Rockhead’s soon failed. The area had lost its charm. An attempt to launch a third Rising Sun, at an abandoned theatre on St. Laurent Blvd., also failed to get off the ground. After about 15 years, Doudou Boicel ended his career as a jazz and blues impresario.

All jazz and blues lovers, however, will applaud the recognition he is receiving, one of 20 laureates honoured this month as part of Black History Month.


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