The Education of Wray Downes

This interview with Canadian piano great Wray Downes was conducted over the phone (I was in Toronto, he in Montreal) and originally published in the March, 2008 issue of CODA Magazine. 

“Tiger Woods, he’s my guy,” states pianist Wray Downes, who’s just put down the sports section when I call. “Jazz musicians are all golfers…what else are you going to do during the day?” Although one answer to that rhetorical question could be “make music,” Downes is not a man with a one-track mind. He doesn’t eat, breath and sleep music. In fact, he has walked away from the profession numerous times. These temporary respites from music have not, however, diminished his palpable air of confidence. “I was never a very good golfer,” suggests the pianist. “I figured doing one thing well is enough.” That one thing, playing jazz piano, is something for which Downes has received recognition since taking it up shortly after being heralded a child prodigy and saddled with the potential to be the “first black concert pianist.”

“I didn’t start taking lessons until I was four years old,” remembers Downes. “After my older brother.” That “older brother” was actually Lincoln Alexander, the 24th Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. The son of Downes’s godfather, Alexander was sent from Hamilton to live with the Downes family in Toronto. Downes ended up taking the piano lessons that were meant for Alexander. “I used to stand in the doorway when he was taking his lesson and say ‘Winc’…I couldn’t say Linc yet…‘I wanna try!’” Before long, Downes was playing two or three songs that he picked up by ear from the doorway. His mother decided he should take over the lessons as Alexander never practiced—he was too busy reading—and they were “paying already.”
When he was nine years old, Downes won his first classical piano competition. During the ten years that followed, he received more than seventy-five awards, medals and scholarships, including the opportunity to study at Trinity College of Music in London, England in 1949 as the first Canadian recipient of this award.

So, where did it all start? How did a young man trained in the western art music tradition with so many lofty expectations placed upon him, wind up as one of the most respected jazz musicians in Canada? It’s simple really. Along came Oscar Peterson. “I used to listen to this late night radio program out of New York called “Jumpin’ with Symphony Syd,” recalls Downes. “After my parents went to bed, I’d sneak out and listen with my ear up against that big old radio.” This was shortly after Peterson made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1949. “I’d call Symphony Syd long distance and request some of Oscar’s hits,” explains Downes. “I’d listen to them and learn them note by note.” Once the phone bill came, however, Downes had some explaining to do. “They didn’t itemize all your calls on your bills back then,” elaborates the pianist. “So I told my parents that I had called my aunt in New York to talk. Once they called her to check up on me…that’s when I got a real beating!” No form of corporal punishment could keep Downes from following his jazz muse, however.

The early 1950s found Downes in Europe, studying at London’s Trinity College of Music and in Paris at the Conservatoire National de Musique. He also studied harmony with John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie and piano with Mary Lou Williams, the latter of whom he cites as a mentor. Soon, Downes was touring Europe (under the name Randy Downes) with a laundry list of expatriate jazz musicians like Bill Coleman, Dickie Wells, Zutty Singleton, Lionel Hampton, Buck Clayton, Sidney Bechet, Annie Ross and Blossom Dearie. Back in Canada in the late 1950s, Downes began studying privately with Peterson, the man who unwittingly earned him those beatings over the long distance telephone bills. The two became fast friends and when Peterson opened the Advanced School of Contemporary Music on Park Road in Toronto, Downes enrolled studying with not just Peterson, but with trio members Ed Thigpen and Ray Brown. “I remember Ray lived in one of those apartment buildings at St. Clair and Avenue Road, and Ed lived up in Don Mills.” Downes doesn’t recount much about the education he received at the ASCM, but his time there was formative for his playing and helped cement his relationship with Peterson.

By the early 1960s, Downes had earned a reputation as one of Toronto’s pre-eminent jazz pianists and Peterson and Norm Amadio recommended Downes take Amadio’s place as the pianist for the in-house trio at the Town Tavern on Yonge Street. The Town Tavern (and the nearby Colonial Tavern) welcomed many of the American jazz greats of the day to their stage. Here, along with bassists Bill Britto and Lennie Boyd, and drummers Archie Alleyne and Rick Marcus, Downes played behind Lester Young, Ben Webster, Sonny Stitt, Roy Eldridge, Zoot Sims and Clark Terry, with whom he would later tour the United States.

Even with the occasional self-imposed sabbatical, Downes’s accomplishments are too numerous to mention. Tours of Europe and North America, sharing the stage with Joe Williams, Stanley Turrentine, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis among others, recordings with Charlie Biddle, Dave Turner, Buddy Tate and Don Thompson number as only a few of the high points. John Norris, co- founder of CODA, has pointed to the “brilliance and versatility of his playing,” while longtime Globe and Mail critic Mark Miller has documented his own conversations with Peterson about Downes: “Over and over again, I’ve run into players in the States,” remembered Peterson, “and they’ve said, ‘Man, I was in Toronto—hey, I played with a guy, a good piano player…’ I say, ‘Wray Downes.’ ‘Yeah! Hey man, why hasn’t he…’ I can’t answer them. I don’t know what to say.” Downes’s story finds its way back to Oscar Peterson in 1997, when he played at a tribute to Peterson at a concert hall named in Peterson’s honour at Concordia University. Downes is quick to point out Peterson’s credibility as a composer. “There are really only four of us that can play Oscar’s writing the way it should be played right now…that’s me, Oliver Jones, Benny Green and Makoto Ozone. I promised Kelly [Peterson’s widow] that I would continue to play that music as long as I was able.” Without question Downes’s relationship with Peterson has come a long way: from learning his songs off the radio as a teenager, to studying with him, to becoming his colleague, his friend and now protector of his legacy. What about Downes’s own students? Now that he’s spent several years as a part time faculty member at both Concordia and McGill University in Montreal, is there anyone with whom he feels the kind of connection that Peterson felt with him? “John Roney [the Toronto born, Montreal based pianist] is one,” states Downes. “He moved here [to Montreal] to get his Masters. He’s studied just about everywhere.” Downes also mentions West Coast mainstays Tilden Webb (piano) and Jodi Proznick (bass) as being “great players.”

These days, Downes seems comfortable in his skin as an educator. His relationship with the education system wasn’t always so amicable, however. In the 1940s, Downes was expelled from Toronto’s Riverdale Collegiate after putting a fellow student “in the hospital” for issuing a racial slur. When he went back to school, this time at Malvern Collegiate in Toronto’s east end, “my reputation preceded me,” remembers Downes. The other students were intimidated by Downes, because of his history at Riverdale, and learned to tread softly. “Shortly after I started at Malvern this other new kid came to the school and all the other kids were picking on him because (they thought) he was weird. He was always wearing his scarf, even in the springtime and these wool gloves. I was his protector. I told the other kids: he’s a genius!” That “weird” new kid was none other than Glenn Gould.

Today it is as a teacher that his neighbours in Montreal know him. In fact, when in early January, Downes found a moving van parked four houses down the way, some well meaning neighbours took it upon themselves to introduce him—the man they thought of as an unassuming music teacher—to the street’s newest resident. “‘Wray…you won’t believe it,’” they explained. “‘We have a famous jazz piano player living on our street, you have to meet him!’ They were so excited to introduce me to him. I was just relieved he played along!” Downes, who treasures his anonymity, pretended to meet none other than [fellow pianist] Oliver Jones for the first time that day. “Oliver knew instinctively to just go with it…he was very pleasant, just talked a little bit about how I teach at the University and then got back to moving.” Downes laughs at the memory. His “secret identity” intact, he’s free to go about his daily life, working with his students, enjoying that Sports section and planning a possible appearance at Montreal’s Upstairs Jazz Club this spring (should he decide that he wants to). He also promises that a memoir is on its way. Up first, however, is a March CD release party for the Montreal-based vocalist Madeline Theriault’s debut effort (on which he plays). Even now, at 77 years of age after a lifetime of accomplishments, there seem to be no limits for Wray Downes. “I always thought I could do anything,” he states. “I could fly if I wanted to.”

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