Jazz & Montreal go way back, and our studio is right in the heart of its native quartier. When two major train stations opened downtown (1889 & 1918), the black community based itself nearby in Little Burgundy to take advantage of one of the few decent paying jobs available to men of color back then: railway porter. Oscar Peterson’s father, a West Indian immigrant & amateur musician, was one of those porters. This tight knit community created and nurtured a vibrant black music culture here in the north.
The local jazz scene also owes a huge debt to Prohibition. Starting in 1919, booze was banned for almost ten years throughout the U.S. & most of Canada. Since Quebec was the only ‘wet’ spot north of Mexico & the Caribbean, Montreal quickly amassed a well deserved reputation as a decadent party town (‘the Paris of North America’).
A never ending supply of hootch & babes was a magnet for nightlife, drawing in massive tourist traffic and creating an entertainment industry with 100s of clubs at its peak during the 40s & 50s.
Rockhead’s Paradise, founded with bootlegging profits by local, Rufus Rockhead, was one of the first black-owned nightclubs (both of its incarnations were just two blocks east of the studio). From the 20s to the early 80s, it consistently hosted some of North America’s biggest jazz talents. During the 70s & 80s, this writer hit some memorable gigs in that fab dive: an elderly but still feisty Cab Calloway, Mongo Santamaria (fingers wrapped in bandages), and a surly Buddy Guy surface from dusty gray cells.
Mainstream jazz audiences dried up in the 50s as TV came in, a zealous mayor ‘cleaned up’ the city, and a highway was carved right through Little Burgundy – but a tiny flame of jazz kept on flickering. Doudou Boucel, who came to town in 1970 from French Guiana, started The Rising Sun, and Charlie Biddles, an expat Yankee bassist, opened Biddles. Both of these men were founding fathers of what became the megalithic annual Montreal International Jazz Festival.
These two murals are a few blocks west of the studio, in the centreville neighborhood where local talent Oscar Peterson & Oliver Jones were raised. Jazz is the hood, vive le Jazz!