Exclusive interview with Oliver Jones

06/12/2018
  • Magazine

For Oliver Jones, real joy is found in the joy provided to others. An exclusive interview with this generous Montreal jazz legend.

Without any bitterness, Oliver Jones confides that he hasn’t touched his piano in four and a half months. It doesn’t bother him because piano is nonetheless instrumental to his daily life.“Last night I saw a great concert by an incredible jazzpianist, Lorraine Desmarais,” he comments with a mix of wonder and pride that one usually reserves for the admirationof next-generation musicians. Desmarais is herself a Montreal jazz icon, and despite her numerous awards andage of 61, in Mr. Jones’ eyes, she remains eternally “the firstyoung musician I met in the 1980s, when I came home from Puerto Rico,” where he had spent several years coaching pop groups and singers.

The joyful 83 year old retiree is never as at ease as when he gets to mention those who have graced his life with music, and have enabled him to continue to enjoy jazz’s dizzy depths and heights, despite his stroke last year. The latter was a travail that still significantly affects his elocution—but not his legendary generosity.

Downtown’s Jazz Gentleman

As proof of this generosity, one needs only glance at the liner notes of the Live at Biddles Jazz and Ribs (1983) recording, Oliver Jones’ first-ever album. Former Montreal Gazette journalist James Quig tells of having watched a woman pass a request written on a piece of paper up to Jones, who was in residence at Fairmount the Queen Elizabeth Hotel along with fellow musician and double bassist, the late Charles Biddle. What did she want to hear? A rather rare tune called Ol’ Buttermilk Sky. “My pleasure!” said Montreal’s Jazz Gentleman with a smile that took no offense at the request, Quiq recounts. They played it wonderfully well, with rhythm, enthusiasm, and fearlessly; they remade the song through jazz. Yet above all, they gave their audience and specifically the requester, a precious gift: happiness.

“Even when I stopped playing clubs (to instead welcome larger audiences in concert halls), I still reserved about 20 minutes at the end to speak with the audience, ask what they wanted to hear. That’s what makes me happiest, being able to give something special to people,” explains the artist who was honoured with the City of Montreal’s Citizen of Honour award in 2014. “Even if it’s not jazz they want to hear, I always found a way to put a jazz spin on it. After shows, people often said to me ‘I don’t usually like jazz, but after seeing you tonight, if what you’re playing is jazz, than I’ve become a fan.’” “At the time, I knew about 4,000 songs,” he recalls while contemplating the 80s, an era when he was in very high demand.

After leaving the Fairmount the Queen Elizabeth Hotel where he regaled audiences from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., Oliver Jones headed to Aylmer Street, to Biddles Jazz and Ribs (now known as the House of Jazz), where he was part of a trio that played for up to two hours or more, to jazz fans (drunk or sober!), and the coming and going of waiters and restaurant staff. “Eight or nine hours of playing in front of people is hard, it’s exhausting, but it’s the best job in the world.”

When looking at the delightfully kitsch liner notes from Live at Biddles, Jones is there, alongside his colleagues of the era: Biddle himself and the late Bernard Primeau on drums.

In the foreground? A bottle of wine and a plate of smoked meat on a table. Jones lets out a gleeful giggle, “I remember my friends telling me that was funny, because everyone knows that I’ve never drank a drop in my whole life!”

Thank God for the Petersons!

In the 60s, Oliver Jones headed to Puerto Rico, where he coached pop stars performing on hotel stages, until he decided to head home to Montreal in the 1980s. The jazzman always had greatness inside of him, and it wasn’t until his spots at Biddles that his reputation was made.

Born in 1934 in Petite-Bourgogne, young Oliver knew how to play the piano before he could even write. There, his neighbour Oscar Peterson (who remains his idol to this day) filled the street with music. The sister of Montreal’s greatest jazzman ever, Daisy Peterson Sweeney, became Jones’ piano teacher. In Jones’ old neighbourhood these days, there’s a mural in his honour, (at the corner of boulevard Georges-Vanier and avenue Lionel-Groulx). “I was lucky enough to learn classical piano from her,” Jones reminisces of his close friend, who died in August 2017 at the age of 97 (Mayor Coderre announced that he wanted to rename a street in her honour at the time). “After I was done my lesson, I also had time to work on something else, and sometimes, Oscar or his brother Chuck would come find me and ask ‘Why don’t you try it more like this, or like that.’ There was always someone there to help me learn and grow as a musician, that’s why I often say thank God for the Petersons!

He swears that his last concert was and will always be January 2017 in Barbados, where his parents grew up. But he also retired in 1999, and then came out of retirement in 2004 after an invitation from the Festival international de jazz de Montréal, for whom he is a stalwart musician. Oliver Jones—at his own cost—has sprinkled gorgeous grand pianos here and there throughout Montreal, in many schools and public places, as if reminding everyone of his conviction that the most important music comes from the hands of future players.

“It all started when I went to a school in Rivière-des-Prairies to talk to kids about my life and childhood. They asked me to play their piano—it had about a dozen broken keys. The music teacher was embarrassed to have me play on an instrument that was in such a sad state, so I said to him ‘The next time I come, I’m bringing you a piano.’” Jones kept his word, and by doing so, he also declared that a school without a piano is a school without a soul.

Text: Dominic Tardif - Photo: Jocelyn Michel

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