Thursday, March 1, 2007

Coolest spot in town swings for 50 years
Yardbird Suite celebrates birthday

Alan Kellogg
The Edmonton Journal

Time travel to Edmonton, 1957. The population of the city proper was 238,000, the size of Saskatoon today.

Leduc No. 1 was just over a decade old. The Edmonton Symphony Society was celebrating its fifth birthday. It would be six years before Joe Shoctor opened the doors of the Citadel Theatre in a Salvation Army hall on 102nd Street.

Something else was brewing over on Whyte Avenue. By no means then the power spot it is now, Old Strathcona, rife with derelict buildings, was faded, funky and cheap. Behind a music store near 104th Street, a tiny black room with an alley entrance ushered in a new era for the city. Jazz -- the real thing -- had finally found a permanent home, however modest.

The Yardbird Suite put Edmonton on the jazz map.

It's hard to top the hipster grandeloquence of the Edmonton Jazz

Society newsletter of the day. "At 11:00 p.m. on the night of March 23, 1957, the proverbial door swung open (the club will swing forever) on definitely the most seraphic happening that has occurred to jazz in this era."

Say it, daddy. Say it loud. The Yardbird Suite was born.

This month, the legendary club celebrates its golden anniversary with a strong lineup of concerts and commissioned music honouring a half-century of uncompromised jazz. Full details and a history penned by longtime society light Craig Magill are available on the impressive website. The list of musicians who have worked for the society over the years is literally a who's who of the genre.

The Suite has had several incarnations over the years, and a long hiatus before Marc Vasey resurrected it as a society-operated, volunteer-run venue in 1984. The street in front of the present club, which was once the Malone Warehouse and is now owned by the society, is named after Senator Tommy Banks. He certainly played piano in all of them, but unlike some tellings, didn't begin the club with partner Phil Shragge. Across the way, a statue of Big Miller stands, another legendary showman at the club.

In fact, as Banks and Magill will report, it all began with a group of working musicians and their girlfriends, led by drummer-visual artist Terry Hawkeye. Playing any kind of "commercial" music that would pay the bills, they longed for the jazz life. As Banks puts it with a chuckle, "having a place where we could hone our chops and play as many self-indulgent solos as we wanted until everyone fell asleep."

The Suite was started as a private, after-hours weekend club -- no booze, strictly enforced -- but quickly became the place to be for local and visiting jazz cognoscenti. Banks and Shragge -- who doubled on drums and bass -- got involved eight or 10 months after the grand opening.

"It was a dark, black little room," recalls the senator. "Terry was a pretty good artist and his work was on the walls. The furniture was right out of the Sally Ann or somebody's parents' basements, all castoffs. The idea of being on the executive was: it's your turn to clean the toilets."

For Magill, a high school Duke Ellington aficionado who needed his parents' permission (and wheels) to make the scene, the original Suite was "magical." In fact, it changed his life. "Everyone seemed so much older, and the music was just happening."

"Everything changed for that early phase on Jan. 1, 1960," Banks maintains. "That was when the blue laws, the liquor laws were relaxed. There were always nightclubs in Edmonton, but the legal changes exploded the number, from like seven to 70. In their wisdom, the Social Credit government allowed establishments that served food and hired at least a three-piece band to serve booze. That created some challenges for the Suite. Musicians worked later, and six or even seven nights a week."

And so the Suite moved around to several locations, occasionally mixing theatre and poetry with the music and famous Sunday jazz sessions, attracting luminaries from Leonard Cohen to Zoot Sims. Finally closing its doors in 1967 in the midst of the British (rock) Invasion that shut many jazz venues across the continent, the Suite -- at least in name -- remained dormant until '84.

P.J. Perry, a Suite veteran who will perform March 9 and 10 with Doug Riley, Sandro Dominelli and Jim Head, recalls Sunday night jams at the original locale. As a teen playing alto sax in his father Paul's big band, "we'd rush back into town from Sylvan Lake and head there. I don't so much remember the room -- those basement-type jazz clubs were all the same -- as much as I remember how the feeling was. Cool. Ordinary people just didn't hang out in a place like that, which was so different and you felt special. And for a musician, well, those guys could play the real thing, it was quality."

Tommy Banks will hold forth with an all-star lineup Friday and Saturday night. Respect is what it's all about, he figures, recalling a time when one of the old Suite locations was broken into. "The thieves left a note saying they were sorry about wrecking the wall, that they would never have entered if they had known it was a volunteer jazz club. Stealing from musicians wasn't right."

"Jazz is a minority pursuit, it's true," Banks continues. "But within that sphere, the Yardbird Suite is simply world famous, as identifiable with Edmonton as Gretzky or the mall: an icon. The fact that it could operate all these years on a volunteer basis is a mark of maturity, and singular at that. There is nothing like it in Toronto or New York. It's ours."

Magill, still on the board of the society and chair of the 50th-anniversary committee, says he doesn't see that changing. "Things are going very well. I'm sure that the Yardbird Suite will be around and viable 50 years from now. I fully expect them to put my ashes under the stage."

The Edmonton Journal 2007