Edmonton Journal

Friday, May 05, 2006


Those in the know get a night of jazz with the GG

Your faithful scribe was scarcely the only one to be tipped off as the Yardbird was packed for an all-star jazz night hosted by Senator Tommy Banks

Alan Kellogg

Early Thursday morning, the radio news reader announced that the Governor General would soon be arriving at CFB Edmonton for a private meeting with wounded soldiers, family and friends. That first stop, closed to media, kicked off a series of mostly public events to be held throughout the province on the Vice-Regal's first official visit to Alberta.

In fact, Michaelle Jean, husband Jean-Daniel Lafond and daughter Marie-Eden slipped into town Wednesday. A few days earlier, a friend had tipped me off. Show up at the Yardbird Suite Wednesday night for a special all-star local jazz night hosted by Senator Tommy Banks, and I'd get more than an evening of well-rendered standards. There was to be nothing in advance and no photographers allowed other than me, which amounts to the same. I wouldn't make deadline. Get there early, he cautioned.

We did. And my initial patented smug self-satisfaction at getting a scoop of sorts quickly evaporated at the sight of an immense line waiting outside the club. A pal and I barely got in, and many were turned away. If the appearance by the residents of Rideau Hall was a state secret, it seemed lost on the fans packing the room. They knew, and the buzz was unmistakable. Chalk one up for the loyal jazzbos of Edmonton. As P.J. Perry, Canada's finest alto saxophonist observed wryly from the stage later on, it was cheering to see such a big crowd on a Wednesday night.

The upper landing running along the Suite's west wall was cordoned off for dignitaries, which included Mayor Stephen Mandel and Alberta Liberal Leader Kevin Taft, who happens to be Perry's brother-in-law. The entrance of the Excellencies was low-keyed unto invisible, announced only by a single camera flash, not mine.

Following a brief intro by longtime Edmonton Jazz Society light Craig Magill, resplendent in a handsome blue sport coat, Senator Banks made a short, if gracious welcoming speech before sitting down at the piano.

A spirited solo Ellington medley followed, as the rest of the band stepped up to join in on Take the "A" Train. Speaking of the first letter of the alphabet, the assembled players were strictly A-list types.

Powered by the protean rhythm section of drummer Sandro Dominelli and bassist Mike Lent, trumpeter Bob Tildesley, guitarist Bobby Cairns, a particularly hot and lyrical Perry and later, pianist Chris Andrew did the hometown proud. From a boppin' If I Were a Bell to a tender reading of Star Eyes, satisfaction ensued.

Between sets, I was allowed to travel backstage to a get closer look at our newest head of state. At the risk of getting gooey, it was a pleasure on several levels. Star eyes indeed.

Jean illuminates a room, no doubt about it, with a smile that could melt Bernard Landry at 50 paces, and probably has. The occasion was non-official, if that can ever be said of GGs in public, the vibes friendly and loose. Most of the people in the club office were either musicians or staff.

Arts types long before the call from Paul Martin changed their lives, the Vice-Regals move easily in these circles. A question on the fiscal imbalance or the merits of Stephen Harper's latest coiffure didn't seem appropriate, so you just drank in the scene.

A jazz fan back in his native France since the age of 14, Lafond -- and Perry, who once lived in Montreal -- traded riffs on some of the classic jazz emporiums of the city, from the Black Bottom to the Esquire Show Bar. The late, legendary Charlie Biddle's name came up.

Jean has never visited Edmonton before, and seemed to be enjoying herself prepping for a busy itinerary that will take her to Calgary and Millarville as well.

Like all intelligent security, the wrap around the couple was present, but unobtrusive. Outside, two drivers in dark suits watched the limos rev, talking quietly. You figure that it says something fine about Edmonton, and Canada, that gatherings like this can still happen given the manic ways of the world.

Not without her detractors, Adrienne Clarkson was in fact a very good Governor General, as almost any military person or far northerner will tell you. It goes without saying that she was an arts supporter too, which pleased some of us. Her husband was no slouch, either, with his own body of work.

Jean and Lafond are bound to be different of course, and comparisons will be made. Early on, they took their knocks amid accusations of former separatist leanings. An old friend at an adjoining table opined that appointing Jean was "one of the only good things Paul Martin did as prime minister." That's arguable, for sure. But the choice of the excellencies seems to be an excellent one just the same.

Jean is the fresh, attractive, smart face of contemporary Canada, with the promise of voicing tolerance, diversity and a sense of possibilities. She's welcome here any old time.