Slideshow photos from left: 1. Oliver Jones at the piano in San Juan, Puerto Rico with Bob Hope, Terry Malone, Carlos Palmas (base) and Bruce Yates (guitar). 2. Oliver Jones at the piano accompanied by bass player Charlie Biddle at Les Voyageurs in the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal. (1985) 3. Oliver Jones and Oscar Peterson
As a student at McGill in the 1980s, I remember going to the famous Biddle Jazz & Ribs, a wonderful jazz club just a few blocks from campus. It was the preeminent jazz venue in Montreal at the time, and you’d often see limousines lined up dropping off well-heeled clientele. Whenever I could afford it, I’d head down there with my friends, pay the cover and sip away at a single drink the whole night.
My third year, I was roommates with the daughter of Bobby Thomas, a New York-based jazz drummer. One evening, during a visit to see his daughter, Thomas invited us to join him at Biddle’s, where he introduced us to his friend, the resident pianist at the time, Mr. Oliver Jones. I never forgot that evening, watching the two reminisce about working together, then sitting back and watching Jones play.
Decades later, I got to see Jones again, this time on the outdoor main stage at the Ottawa Jazz Festival. It was an exquisite night – a balmy breeze, a clear starry sky and a perfect performance by Jones. Many agree it was one of the best concerts the Jazz Festival has ever presented.
Child prodigy to award-winning musician
Jones grew up during the boogie woogie era of the 1930’s and 40’s, in the Montreal working-class neighbourhood Little Burgundy, just a few blocks away from his mentor Oscar Peterson. As a child, Oliver would sit on the Peterson porch, listening to the older boy practice, and studied piano with Oscar Peterson’s sister, Daisy.
A child prodigy who at age three could play from memory songs he heard on the radio, Jones was performing publicly at age five, and by the time he had his first nightclub appearance, he was nine.
His career began performing a solo novelty act at clubs and theatres in Montreal, and touring the US as a member of a show called The Bandwagon. For most of the 1960’s and 70’s, Jones acted as musical director for a calypso singer, playing mostly top 40 songs.
Jones returned to Montreal in 1980 and collaborated with bassist Charlie Biddle, becoming resident pianist in his club. According to Jones, “Biddle’s was total freedom for me – it was the greatest jazz job that I ever had. I had the opportunity to be able to play what I loved every night after many frustrating years of playing pop and disco – it was very liberating!”
By the mid-1980s, Jones was travelling throughout Canada, the U.S. and Europe, appearing at jazz festivals, concerts and clubs, either as a solo artist or with a trio. In 1986 Jones won his first of three JUNO Awards, for his album titled Lights of Burgundy.
A Canadian jazz icon
Throughout the 1990s, Jones played a busy concert and recording schedule, performing over 130 times a year, including in China, and recording eight jazz albums. In 2000, he announced retirement, but couldn’t stay away from the stage and recording studio.
In 2009, he won his third JUNO for the apt-named Second Time Around. He was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and in 2005, and received the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award in 2005, Canada’s highest honour in the performing arts. He won Musician of the Year at the National Jazz Awards in 2006 and in 2013 Canada Post released a stamp in his name.
Critics laud Jones for his phenomenal technique, credited in part to his background in classical and popular music. They also recognize his understanding of restraint, his ability to find the expressive nature of a song, rather than burying it in virtuosity. He’s been praised for his talent for making music swing and for his “big, buoyant melodic structures.”
Over the years, Jones has performed in Ottawa many times, including at the NAC, the Ottawa Jazz Festival and as the headliner for the Ottawa Chamber Festival. “I’ve always had great reaction from the Ottawa audience – they’re very appreciative,” says Jones. “It’s always been an enjoyable experience for me.”
Jones has many friends and family in Ottawa, and says he’s really looking forward to his concert on Thursday. For audiences, the show will be bittersweet, as Jones insists this truly is his final tour.
“I’m 82 now and it’s time for me to sit back and enjoy the rest of my life,” Jones says. “The travelling – 200,000 to 300,000 miles a year – takes its toll. It’s a lot.”
His final Ottawa performance will include a mix of classical and jazz, with some Chopin and Bach, and an homage to Oscar Peterson in the second half.
After the tour, he plans to pass the baton onto the next generation. He’ll continue his support for other Canadian artists and make sure they get the exposure they need. “We have so many wonderful young artists that are deserving of the opportunity to share their music and talent,” he adds.
Still, there will be no one like Oliver Jones. We’ll miss him.
Jones plays in the NAC Theatre on Thursday, May 19 at 7:30 pm as part of NAC Presents. The show is sold out, but the NAC will release holds shortly before the performance and you may luck out. NAC Presents launches its 2016/17 season on May 17. So far, shows with Gordon Lightfoot and Chantal Kreviazuk have been announced.