A Conversation With ...John Devenish
The popular Toronto jazz radio host reflects upon his family’s musical background, his passion for Black culture and history, and his own diverse musical tastes in this in-depth interview.
By Bill King
"John has brought a wonderful, relaxed vibe to Dinner Jazz, guiding listeners through their early evenings for a decade. John's natural ease has made him a favourite with the JAZZFM91 audience" - Brad Barker host of Afternoon Drive.
Dinner Jazz runs 6-9 p.m.each weekday at JAZZFM91 and draws a devout listenership in for the classics and new discoveries. Devenish speaks with a calm authoritative voice, a product his years in theatre and film. The show is informative, never intrusive and the right mix for a sit-down dinner, those early evenings behind a computer screen with a snack and glass of fine wine, or just a moment of much-needed solitude. Here’s our conversation.
Bill King: You come to JAZZ.FM91. with a background in the arts; a B.A. (Music) Carleton University, ARCT, Piano Performance (Associate) Royal Conservatory of Music, Toronto amongst other citations. The music you play on your nightly show Dinner Jazz resides on the outskirts of classical music. Where does the passion for jazz come from?
John Devenish: I would argue loudly that jazz is American classical music! My parents instilled a love of all arts performed at the top of a performer’s game and that was what was most important to them. This was true of almost any activity or endeavour. Artists, scientists and intellectuals of all kinds, and the top athletes. The music training was the foundation that meant an academic understanding of the building blocks of music that translate to all genres. My mother was a private music teacher and when she was younger, she played in all kinds of concerts and performances as an accompanist and soloist. That meant playing just about anything people wanted to hear, dance to, or sing and play.
She played in the church, for services, and shows. She was a fearless sight-reader and in addition to being able to read music, she could play almost anything by ear and loved The Great American Songbook and the old songs of Britain’s glory days and entertainment. She had an enviable perfect pitch. My father lived for all kinds of music but had a special place for jazz. He was a fan of the Voice of America jazz programming and NPR.
Growing up in a black family the record collections reflected the music of my parent’s generation and their politic. The civil rights movement was and meant everything and so much of it was reflected in the music of the times. Folk, blues, jazz, gospel… We had everything on vinyl from jazz classics to classical music as performed by the likes of Marion Anderson, William Warfield, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, and Kathleen Battle. Dinu Lipatti, Horowitz, Van Cliburn, Gould, Bartlett,… All of the major label collections too including those produced by Time-Life. The politics and the singing of Paul Robeson filled the house too as did Mahalia Jackson and Pearl Bailey, Ella, Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson. The list goes on. The names are familiar in many black households. An older cousin studied opera, sang with the COC and is now retired from The Netherlands State Opera. The actor, dancer, musician, and artist, Geoffrey Holder was a relation on my mother’s side. We were always made aware of his work, importance, and mark on the arts! We had great music teachers who made wonderful impressions on us and instilled the importance of perfection and practice and enjoyment of music holistically too, and not just technically.
B.K: How and when did you hook-up with JazzFm?
J.D: I got the bug for radio in university doing a showcase show for the music program I was in. I had been on the air at Classical 96 for about five years and had not been on the air for a few years, working doing voice-overs and acting. I had been in the certificate radio program at Humber after some time weighing the value of going to school for radio as was the way to break in. Many of my classmates from that year are successful in radio or TV in one way or another and we stay in touch and have thrown tips about gigs and jobs at each other over the years and it is through that that I heard about JazzFM91 looking for a morning show host. This was in 2011. I had been working at Remenyi House of Music as the Steinway Concert and Artist Services Representative for Toronto coordinating the professional use of a fleet of Steinway pianos for Steinway artists who visited the city and for recording. It was remarkably interesting work, but I missed the radio. I sent in a demo of my work and then there was a series of interviews and tryouts.
B.K: Did you ever envision your stay would last this long?
J.D: I never really thought about how long I would be at the station. I was fully aware of the reality of radio work and grateful to have been able to have all of my professional work starts and continue in a major market. It is a true privilege and mad luck.
B.K: Is there a period of jazz or artists that have an everlasting hold over you?
J.D: The easiest way for me to answer this is to say that I am a fan of the originals, the innovators, and the risk-takers. Those who have never been afraid to be vocal about their politics and who demand that the music get full respect as a legitimate artform second to no other. A true American Classic music. There is no preferred era. It is all in the message and the groove of that message.
B.K: Have you read much of the history, the Harlem poets, the all-nighters, the composers, the players, and singers?
J.D: I could not have lived with the great education energy and political intensity of my parents and not been exposed to the giants of the Harlem renaissance, The musicians, poets, playwrights, activists, scholars, and intellectuals. From Baldwin to Hughes, Baker, Robeson and Garvey, and my grand-cousin CLR James. (He was my grandmother’s cousin).
B.K: Where did you grow up and what was your neighbourhood like?
J.D: We did some moving but growing up was mostly between Winnipeg and Ottawa with much familial time spent along the Eastern Seaboard of the US.
B.K: What kind of kid, student were you? The interests – the daily grind.
J.D: There was a lot of time spent taking lessons in music. Not all of my music studies were in classical music. I studied jazz privately and popular show music with my mother. During the time my younger sister and I were tuition scholarship students at the Conservatoire de musique et d’art dramatique du Québec we spent roughly three hours a night, four nights out of the week after regular school attending classes, in theory, solfege, private instrument instruction mostly in French. There was not a huge amount of extra time. My folks said other kids' families had them as busy in sports and they used to love to say that no one ever seemed to question them doing that to their kids so…!
B.K: Tell me a bit about your family.
J.D: I see myself as a child of The Americas. A Canadian born to amazing parents. I have two lovely sisters. I am in the middle. My older sister is a New Yorker and my younger a Londoner. We form a large triangle bridging the Atlantic based out of three proud cities, and we are all active or have been active, in the arts and social justice, social wellness, and welfare. My parents came to Canada in the mid-1950s and became citizens in the 1960s. It is understood that our history on my father’s side goes back to the landings of slaves in the US South as early as the slave trade.
Some of my father’s family can also trace back to people known as Merikens, who were former US slaves and who were rewarded with land and freedom in Trinidad by the British for fighting with them during The American Revolution. There is also a record of entering the US via Ellis Island in the early 20th Century-. My mother’s side can trace to Venezuela and St. Vincent. With all that the facts are not greatly solid and there are many unattached dots or leaves in the family tree(s) as there are in many families. There is the extensive Caribbean and American family and we are in all corners of the world. Ongoing searching and family research and communication continues to bubble up many surprises and emotions making concepts of a home base, aside from Sub-Saharan Yuroban African heritage truly exponential and welcomingly challenging to define.
My father was a university professor of psychology and my mother a teacher in special education and she also taught kindergarten teachers in teacher’s college and because what was known as a kindergarten specialist. Both were involved in the 1960s with the Child Study Center connected to the University of Ottawa. They were educators and the conversations around the table were intense. They had experienced a lot. Sadly, a lot of racial discrimination. They did their best to shield us from it, but they also wanted to arm us for it. Conversations were very much the standard conversations that are common in many black North American families. The realities of being black in North America and the world in general. The history, their warnings, and the seriousness and the politics; the need to be fierce defenders of racial justice and to educate ourselves and be wary. When I was young I remember my father going out of his way to take me to Parliament to see the great black Canadian Lincoln Alexander in the House of Commons. He was so proud of that. He also took me to see films smuggled out of Rhodesia showing the horrors there and in South Africa in the days of Apartheid. As I said - they could be very intense. They could be very fun-loving and silly and playful. They were educators and were simply engrossed in the wonders of how children learned.
B.K: Which came first - acting, piano or broadcasting?
J.D: Piano, cello, clarinet, acting, broadcasting.
B.K: Did you have role models? Who and what did you learn from them?
J.D: Role models came from many places, but the family had some staggering intellectuals like CLR James and Geoffrey Holder. Stokely Carmichael, MLK, Harry Belafonte. A google list of those who come up when you google major players of the civil rights movement in the US. Amazingly influential too was Canada’s civil rights soldier Dr. Carrie Best. I was also greatly influenced by the artistry of the major composers and artists of classical music, theatre, dance, and visual arts.
B.K: How were you treated through school?
J.D: That’s easy… Like most people who look like me in North America, the experiences were diverse with everything from sadly and typically horrible to brilliantly beautiful and inclusive.
B.K: You earned a Harry Jerome Award for Excellence in Arts, Music – what was this for and how did that moment feel?
J.D: This was the result of being nominated by Dr. Carrie Best. She became a close friend of my family and in many ways the coolest of a kind of adopted grandparent.
B.K: After university what were your aspirations, and have you been able to answer your goals?
J.D: It was always important to be involved in doing something selfless and important culturally and socially. I am satisfied with what I have been able to do and at the same time dissatisfied that there is not enough time to get to everything I would like to experience and be involved with.
B.K: Is there a character you have inhabited on stage that’s very much like yourself? If so, why?
J.D: No, but there have been many fellow actors and artists of all kinds who have impressed me massively and who were significant guiding influences in the way I see the world. I feel lucky to have been accepted so graciously and openly by so many of them.
B.K: The loss of Chadwick Boseman has had a profound effect on many a child as well as adults who saw his roles from Thurgood Marshall, James Brown to Black Panther to be triumphant in an art form where few black actors inhabit leading roles. Your thoughts?
J.D: I was never without a thorough understanding of the struggles of my people and also had many examples of great people of African heritage to reference and be amazed by. I feel I was very privileged in this way because of the almost activist parenting styles of my folks.
B.K: John Singleton, Robert Townsend, and before them, Gordon Parks, Sidney Poitier, all reached out to the community and told stories that most reflected life as they knew it. How much influence did these filmmakers have on you?
J.D: These filmmakers and artists proved what my parents instilled. Belief, determination, overcoming, perseverance, and pride all come together to allow and make way for greatness regardless of hurdles, prejudice, and assumption.
B.K: Is there a director you would most want to work with?
J.D: Quentin Tarantino!
B.K: What keeps you the busiest – voiceover work, acting, broadcasting?
J.D: Mostly my work in social and developmental services but after that broadcasting and the voiceover work at different times than these.
B.K: What’s a good evening at home?
J.D: Listening to music - Rabbitholes in YouTube - Piano playing and arranging music - Staying in touch with increasingly newly discovered family all over the world. Keeping up with my adult son and his life as he navigates the world.
B.K: What’s playing in the background?
J.D: A seams bursting collection of CDs from the station and my private collecting. Everything from jazz classics, artists who blend genres, Folk, R&B, Soul, Classical, Radio documentaries…
B.K: Who would you most like to share a one on one conversation – any time in history?
J.D: My grandmother’s cousin, CLR James, intrigues me. His intellect was blinding, and I think his never-take-prisoners' spirit would make for a conversation that would challenge and mean endless enrichment… if he’d have time for me!