Ron Leigh is an addict of sorts, but he’s not making any effort to recover.
“I’m a jazz junkie for which I make no apologies,” Leigh told the Rotary Club of Osoyoos in a recent talk coinciding with Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), which encompasses all of April.
Leigh, who spends the warmer months of the year in Osoyoos and has lived in B.C. for 14 years, now has a custom B.C. license plate on his truck saying, “Mr Jazz.”
He supplements his vast jazz collection by listening to jazz channels on Sirius XM digital radio.
He subscribes to Downbeat Magazine. He’s a longtime member of the Duke Ellington Society. He’s played in jazz bands. He even hosted his own jazz radio program in Calgary for four years at the end of the 1990s.
And he’s attended concerts of some of the jazz legends, even meeting Louis Armstrong backstage once.
Leigh is clearly hooked.
It started at a young age. Leigh guesses he was around 12. His father played piano and the family had many old 78-rpm (revolutions per minute) records.
“I remember listening to songs by a musician named Meade Lux Lewis,” recalls Leigh. “I listened to this piano player playing boogie-woogie and I got interested. The interest carried on as I grew older.”
Growing up in Montreal, Leigh’s friends were all into rock ’n roll, but Leigh was into jazz.
When he bought his first car, he took a road trip to a jazz festival in Toronto, spending about four or five days, and seeing some major artists.
“That’s really where I became hooked,” he says.
After a pair of Benny Goodman concerts in Montreal in 1959, Leigh was beyond redemption.
He bought a front-row ticket for the matinee, but he didn’t stop there. He went back for the evening show.
“I said to myself, ‘Leigh, you are hooked,’” he recalls. “I’ve been a fan ever since and it hasn’t stopped.”
For a while he became a musician, playing drums with a band that performed in communities surrounding Montreal from Thursday to Saturday. They played in bars and would be given a room at the hotel where they played.
In later years, he took up guitar and more recently has learned to play alto saxophone, though he admits he’s a bit rusty.
Not only is Leigh passionate about the music, but he’s also fascinated by the history of jazz and the artists who played it.
He based his talk to Rotary around a 1958 black and white photograph by Art Kane of a group of 57 notable jazz musicians photographed in front of a brownstone building in Harlem. The photo is known as “A Great Day in Harlem.”
Leigh guesses he’s seen about 10 or 11 of the musicians in the photo live – Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Gene Krupa and others.
“Coleman Hawkins was in that photograph,” says Leigh, referring to a prominent tenor sax player. “I had a very brief discussion when I bought him a drink one time.”
But perhaps the best-known jazz musician Leigh has met, Louis Armstrong, wasn’t one of those in the famous Harlem photo.
Leigh attended an Armstrong concert in Calgary in 1968, three years before the famous trumpeter, composer and singer’s death.
He was allowed into the “green room,” the room where performers can relax between performances.
“There were all these musicians,” Leigh recalls. “And there is Armstrong, right there, sitting on a counter. There’s a mirror and he’s looking at me through the mirror, a big smile on his face.”
Leigh addressed him as “Pops,” one of Armstrong’s nicknames, and gave him his program to autograph.
Just to the side of Armstrong was his trumpet case and it was open with the trumpet inside.
“I almost wanted to reach out and touch it,” says Leigh. “But I know it wouldn’t be the right thing to do and I didn’t do that.”
Armstrong toured constantly, playing about 300 days a year.
“He was willing to meet people, to shake their hand,” said Leigh. “Sometimes a musician becomes very standoffish, but he was just the opposite. He was pretty friendly with me.”
Leigh knows that many people don’t share his passion for jazz. In fact he only knows a few people in the Osoyoos area who do.
Why do some people find jazz music so inaccessible?
Leigh thinks it’s because when jazz musicians improvise, a lot of people don’t recognize the melody.
The artist may play the melody at the beginning and then the chorus and bridge, but then they’ll improvise, before returning to the melody at the end.
“Sometimes a person is listening to a piece of jazz when the artist is improvising,” said Leigh. “That’s kind of foreign to their ears.”
Orchestras and big bands don’t tend to improvise, but smaller groups do it more, he said.
That experimentation and spontaneity is what attracts Leigh.
“I like listening to how an artist would take that melody, twist it around a little bit, add a few extra notes or remove some notes and maybe play the same notes in a different sequence,” he said.
Sometimes it takes a while to get into a particular musician, as occurred when Leigh first encountered the music of Thelonius Monk.
“The first time I heard it, I didn’t like it,” he says. “But I listened to it. It’s an acquired taste. I enjoy his music now.”
By Richard McGuire