Bill King: Recollections of Allan Slaight & 'All That Jazz!'
I have this thing about reading people’s body language, the way we interact. Each of us is a collector and a warehouse of history.
By Bill King
I have this thing about reading people’s body language, the way we interact. Each of us is a collector and a warehouse of history. With the passing of Allan Slaight, I needed to pause and revisit those moments that brought us together and connected me to the Slaight Family.
If I recall correctly, going back to Q-107 and Mix99.9, Gary (Slaight) invited me in to play piano behind the festivities, whether a Christmas party, changing of the guard or retirement party. I was stationed near the festivities, and one by one, the on-air jocks would drop by and wish me well. Gary would close in and joke around a bit. As time passed, Allan would hang near the piano and talk jazz with me. Allan reminded me he began his career as a jazz disc jockey, and Oscar Peterson was his man. Then one day, I get the call, “Allan would like for you to play piano in his home, and if you could, bring that Liberty Silver gal.”
Allan had these social gatherings in his alleyway home north of Eglington of Yonge Street, usually in October. That was sublime. On one side of the room are Toronto Sun columnist Peter Worthington and Maclean’s Allan Fotheringham. In between, Heather Reisman, Pamela Wallin, Barbara Amiel, Sylvia Tyson, and maybe Margaret Atwood. Let’s not forget Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins. Liberty and I got the floor show feature – two songs, then on to the food. Allan loved the singers. The house sound system played Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong, Etta James and other immortals.
The layout was modern, with stacks of books spread around, many penned by those in attendance. The upper level sported a fireplace, tapestries, ornate rugs and a few high-back chairs. Down below, the two couches were membership only. Not card-carrying, but the most sophisticated and well-connected. Over time, I understood the mixed crowd. The conversations, the artists and special invites. It was about the banter. The electricity in the room. People of divergent political views and economic status meeting on common ground. Those occasions were remarkable.
A few years in and Allan calls me and asks for a pianist. I’m startled by the request yet recommend Juno award winner Phil Dwyer. Allan then says, 'by the way, you are now a guest. Invite Liberty, too.' I thought to myself–‘What did I do to deserve this?’
Not long after, Allan pulls me aside. “You should record that gal. She’s fantastic. Get with Gary and work it out.” So, Gary, me and Liberty meet across from MIX99.9 and negotiate a budget. Thus, Liberty’s remarkable – Liberty Silver Live in Session!
A few years down the road, I’m playing Centro’s with my jazz piano trio, and Allan is living in the neighbourhood and would drop by on occasion. We’d talk Errol Garner, and I’d play I Remember April – we’d talk George Shearing, and I’d play Lullaby of Birdland. Oscar? I’d play Tenderly.
Between sets, we are sitting at the bar when I invite Allan down to the Rex Hotel to hear my newly minted jump blues band, The Saturday Nite Fish Fry. Allan drops in, and from the downbeat, the band roared. Guitar whiz Kevin Breit blistered the bandstand with searing Albert King-style riffs. New Orleans trumpeter Kevin Clark laid down some serious Crescent City Kid Oliver. As he had done before, Allan interjects. Record this band now. Call Gary on Monday and arrange. Jump Shout Rock da House came out and was picked up by Universal Canada. Allan was such a fan he’d buzz me on the odd occasion. “Where’s the band playing now? I have some folks I want to see the band.” I felt like I was getting the best manager in the business.
When I wrote Talk #2 Conversations in All Keys, I thought a lot about those occasions, the line between the artist and the business, and how we are partners and straddle both worlds. We owned many of the same recordings, shared many of the same memories of those giants who once inhabited the music business, and grieved the loss of our music-loving friends and acquaintances. I was reading through a conversation I had in 1993 with the host and comedian Steve Allen, originator of the Tonight Show, recalling the early days of television and in 1954 when an idea paired with ambition and incredible talent was all that was needed to light up the universe. To affect change. Allan has done that, from radio piping across the prairies, to the quality of health investments made throughout our nation. Allan is called the “father of rock radio in Toronto.”
Last week in one day, I walked past Princess Margaret Hospital and saw both Allan and partner Emmanuelle Gattuso’s names inscribed – to support cancer research, then down to Jazz.Fm91 – and the Allan Slaight Performance Centre – then for an evening showing of Oscar Peterson – Black+White in the Allan Slaight Theatre. It’s still all about the music!
“The evening breeze caressed the trees, tenderly. The trembling trees embraced the breeze, tenderly. Then you and I came wandering by - and lost in a sigh were we. The shore was kissed by sea and mist, tenderly.” - Tenderly, writers Walter Gross/Jack Lawrence
Oscar Peterson Tenderly Carnegie Hall Sept 16, 1950