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At the request of a couple of internet Jazz buddies, I’ve assembled the following information on guitarist Ed Bickert, although, I must say, that it didn’t take too much urging to develop a blog feature about him as Ed has always been among my favorite Jazz musicians.
Ed is based in Toronto, Canada and is a fixture on the Canadian Jazz scene in both big band - he was a long-standing member of Rob McConnell’s Boss - and a variety of small groups. He’s an under-the-radar- guy in that he doesn’t call much attention to himself that is until he starts playing.
The following quotation is from the Paul Desmond chapter in Gene Lees’ Meet Me at Jim and Andy’s and pretty much sums it up about Bickert:
“‘I’ve heard about Ed Bickert,’ Paul said. ‘Jim Hall told me about him. Jim says he’s one of the few guitar players who scare him when he sees him come into a room.’”
There’s some repetition between the three articles that form Part 1 of this piece, all of which were written by Mark Miller over a span of approximately 10 years, but I wanted to maintain the integrity of each essay before subsequently editing them into one feature on Ed at a later date, one that will also include the views of him by his fellow musicians that will form the second part part of a profile on Ed.
By way of background, Mark Miller has been a writer — journalist, critic, author, historian —and photographer in the field of music, specifically jazz, for more than 35 years. He is the author of 10 books and served from 1978 to 2005 as the jazz columnist for Canada’s National Newspaper, "The Globe and Mail." He has also written for "Coda Magazine," "Down Beat," "The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz," "Encyclopedia of Music in Canada," "Saturday Night" and several other popular and scholarly publications.
ED BICKERT by Mark Miller, Downbeat, May, 1976
"When my name comes up for the first time, especially in the United States, people automatically assume I’m a young whippersnapper
Whippersnapper? in Toronto. Ed Bickert is now known as the 20-year overnight success It has been 24 years, in fact since he first arrived in Toronto, fresh from Vernon, British Columbia — 30 years since he first picked up a guitar
"My dad was in some sort of country dance music. It wasn’t the Nashville-style country music, just an assortment of square dances, polkas, old-time waltzes and the odd standard that he could pick up on. There was a guitar lying around the house. My older brother played a bit and eventually showed me a few grips. And I learned a lot of things from meeting other guitar players out in the small towns.
"Hearing certain things on the radio got me interested in jazz. It was more interesting than the simpler music I'd been playing with my father The only break we had to hear jazz was late at night There was a program from San Francisco: the disc jockey was Jimmy Lyons. I'd be up when everybody else had gone to bed, with an ear to the radio ..
"I’d listen to anything that had guitar on it. One of the early things I remember was Nat King Cole's trio with Oscar Moore. I used to enjoy his playing, and some very early Les Paul when he was playing more jazz-styled things. It’s a style not too many people know about.” Indeed Les Paul seems to have been a singular influence in the Canadian West, evident in the playing of other prominent guitarists like Gordie Brandt and, according to legend, Lenny Breau. (see Caught in the Act, db July 17, 19 75) "Guitar players at the time were listening to things like that because the music available for listening was limited. You had to take what they had in the stores, and Les Paul seemed to be one of the things you heard. For instance. I missed out completely on Charlie Christian because those records weren’t available in my hometown.”
"When I was m my late teens, I had a strong desire to get to play, really, the best jazz I was capable of playing. I had to move out to some large city. Occasionally, some bands would come through from Vancouver. I’d always try to hang around and talk to them. I got the impression that Toronto was the place to go.”
In the mid-'50s, jazz musicians in Toronto gathered at Melody Mill and the House of Hambourg There. Bickert came to the attention of saxophonist Norman Symonds and trombonist Ron Collier, two men known now primarily as composers (Collier, in particular, for his work with Duke Ellington), but active then as leaders in something of a third-stream bag. Associations with clarinetist Phil Nimmons and reedman Moe Koffman followed On the Canadian Scene, Ed Bickert had arrived.
He "arrived' again, more recently, courtesy of an introduction to the larger jazz world from Paul Desmond ("I consider it Ed’s album, really." the saxophonist said of Pure Desmond. He’s never recorded in the United States before, and I wanted people to hear him). Bickert explains the circumstances "I had known Jim Hall tor a number of years, and he mentioned me to Paul. Jim wanted to do more of his own thing and Paul wanted to get together with another guitarist for the sake of recording and just playing. I guess he was interested enough to get this Bourbon Street engagement started. It worked out fine. [By way of background in terms of Jim Hall wanting to “do more of his own thing,” Paul and Jim had recorded 5 LPs together in the late 1960s for RCA.]
The immediate result of a two-week gig at the Toronto club was a plan for Pure Desmond. For all the praise that he has received, though, Bickert isn't entirely pleased with his contribution to the album "That's probably always the way it will be, because I don’t play nearly to the level that I want to or think I can in a recording situation. I've never felt at ease in recording studios To some extent. Desmond’s next project, a "live" recording from Bourbon Street, should have made Bickert feel a little more comfortable. "That was part of the idea, but being aware of recording all the time hampered things. Maybe that’s the result of the studio thing, where you are more conscious of playing without mistakes than playing with any sort of expression."
That s a revealing remark from a man who was, not so long ago, the premier studio guitarist in Toronto. "Studio work was something a lot of people, including myself, were interested in because it was a prestige thing. It showed that you weren't fooling around. Now, I can't really get into the things required in studio work, the usual mixture of rock, country, and folk. I'm not anywhere near that kind of stuff. I've gotten away from it mostly because I'm trying to do something more with my own music.”
Bickert is characteristically modest about his own music. "I don't really feel I've come up with anything original in my playing, either as a guitarist or as a musician. Just listening to some basic things like Duke Ellington and (a little later) Miles Davis and other people like Gil Evans and Herbie Hancock is bound to have some effect and show itself in my playing sooner or later a phrase here, a couple of notes there, a change, it’s a combination of so many things I ve heard over the years.”
"I can't help being influenced by what I’ve heard Bill Evans do. He takes a lot of fairly standard things and plays them so that they are, to my ears, pleasant. I hate to use that word; but I guess I ve got to admit that’s where it’s at for me.”
More often than not where its “at" involves Don Thompson, bassist with what has come to be known as Desmond’s Bourbon Street Quartet (with Gerry Fuller on drums) and the Bickert trio (with Terry Clarke on drums). Don is also pianist with Bickert in duet and in Moe Koffman s current quintet, and vibist/leader on a classic Canadian broadcast recording. Secret Love, which features Bickert on guitar.
A recording of the two together, and others by Bickert’s trio, may or may not be forthcoming. He explains that it's simply a question of doing it, but "I think to myself, or I say when I'm asked, that if I ever get a chance to do a recording, without too many restrictions, that I’d be really glad and hope that I could come up with something a little better than the run-of-the-mill things you hear done by a lot of guitar players these days. But the opportunities do come up and I can't seem to organize what I really want to do when the time comes. It’s a case of too much deliberation and not enough self-confidence. Obviously “overnight success,” however long in the making, hasn’t gone to Ed Bickert’s head.[This piece was written in 1976. A few years later, Ed would enter into a contract with Concord records and make some recordings “without too many restrictions” that are among his best efforts.]
ED BICKERT IN A MELLOW TONE, by Mark Miller, Downbeat, November, 1984
An hour before he would play a rare jingle date, a day before he would fly to California for appearances at the Concord Jazz Festival with Canadian tenor saxist Fraser MacPherson and Rob McConnell’s Boss Brass, and a day after he had heard the latest on the local hotspot Bourbon Street's apparent slide into obscurity, Ed Bickert sat back on a bench on the lobby of Toronto's McClear Plate recording studios, talking calmly and smoking cigarettes.
As he recounted a 30-year career as Canada's premier jazz guitarist, the other musicians on the date arrived one by one. It began to have the look of a Boss Brass call. Nine of that band's members filed in — Jerry Toth, Ron Hughes, Bob Leonard. Rick Wilkins, Ian McDougall, Bob Livingston, Guido Basso, Steve Wallace, and Rob McConnell himself— along with three ringers, Vern Dorge, Ralph Bowen, and Bob McLaren.
Wilkins was the leader this time. The chart was in a Glenn Miller-ish vein that sent McConnell back to the car for his mutes. Bickert, meanwhile, had left his Telecaster at home — yes, the rock guitarist's instrument, from which Bickert draws some of the mellowest sounds in jazz —and instead had his hollow-body Gibson L5 out of the closet to play a little four-lo-the-bar rhythm guitar.
It has been a quiet time for jazzmen and studio musicians alike in Toronto. Some of the other players at McClear Place were fairly bitter about the situation — about the economy, about the rise of the synthesizer and the demise of the working musician — but Bickert is not one to raise his voice on any subject. He speaks quietly and generally keeps his confidences; when he opens up, his comments are moderated by a dry, self-effacing sense of humor that softens any sharpness. He too feels the walls closing in, but Bickert, at 51, has had doors open internationally even as they seem to have been shutting at home.
It might not have worked out any better if he had planned it this way. But Bickert is no careerist. Other Toronto musicians would have made much more of any one of his accomplishments over the last dozen years — the association with Paul Desmond during the altoist's last years, the work with vibist Milt Jackson at home and abroad, the accumulation of good impressions that he has made backing other visiting jazzmen in Toronto, the unique harmonic concept that has inspired reverent talk among fellow guitarists the world around, the leading role that he has played in the Boss Brass' emergence of late, the various recordings that have culminated in a contract with the California label Concord Jazz. . . .
Instead, the guitarist has moved at his own pace. There's still something in Bickert of the young man who arrived in Toronto at the age of 19 fresh from the farming community of Vernon, British Columbia. It's not just the light drawl in a resonant voice; it's this more leisurely sense of the passing day, and these relatively modest horizons. Were it not for the greater haste of other musicians in Toronto with grander ambitions and lesser talent, and were it not for the probing questions of those who would have wished much more for him by now, he should be quite comfortable.
"Left to my own devices," he said, leaning back with legs crossed, "I like to relax. I do need some sort of push to get going."
When Edward Isaac Bickert, a country lad of 12, picked up his older brothers dobro for the first time, The Guitar, historically, was just coming out of a period of transition. The year was 1945. The electric guitar was an established fact, thanks to recordings a half-dozen years before by Charlie Christian, as was — incontrovertably — the instrument's potential was a solo voice in jazz. There was much for a young guitarist to absorb.
Life for a young guitarist in Vernon, however, was much simpler. The Bickert family had moved west from the province of Manitoba, where their youngest son was born in Hochfeld, near the U.S. border, on November 29, 1932. They established a small chicken ranch in the soil-rich Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, worked the orchards, and ran an old-time dance band for Saturday night functions up in the hills. His mother played piano, and his father was a fiddler. "We'd take up a collection," Bickert remembered of his first country gigs, "so we'd get $3, $4, $5 in change, each."
Whatever they played in the hills, there was a certain amount of jazz in the family's record collection at home. "A lot of it was big band music," Bickert recalled, "Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman. . . . And there were a few small groups, like Les Paul, who had a neat little group with a couple of guitars, piano, and bass, and the King Cole Trio, with Oscar Moore and then Irving Ashby — I was really taken with the way the guitar sounded in that group. As far as any hard jazz was concerned, there wasn't a lot available, certainly not on record, in my hometown."
His introduction to jazz, then, was to its most popular manifestations. Charlie Christian was one man whose influence did not extend to Vernon, or anywhere else in Canada for that matter. Django Reinhardt was another. A list of the guitarists whose styles did come to bear on his playing in the next 10 or 15 years would include Tal Farlow, Jimmy Raney, Johnny Smith, Kenny Burrell, Jim Hall, Herb Ellis, and Barney Kessel — the Christian line more or less, but without Christian.
There were a few other musicians in Vernon. Bickert acknowledged, "ex-professionals who'd come from somewhere else and had been involved in some jazz playing, or maybe dance bands of one sort or another — which is getting close, I suppose. The ones I met opened up my ears to new sounds and new ways of doing things." There were also other guitarists around, older men who traveled through the Okanagan Valley with dance bands out of Vancouver to the west and the Alberta resorts to the east. And there was the radio, specifically Jimmy Lyons' show from San Francisco.
Under these influences Bickert had matured as a musician by 1952 to the point where he could make the unusually bold step to Toronto. It took him a week in a '35 Chevy; at that, he might never move so quickly again.
Of the new kid in town, just 20, Bickert recalled. "I knew quite a few tunes" — the pop songs of the '30s and '40s that still constitute his repertoire today — "and I think I had quite a good 'time' feeling. Maybe better than I do now: playing the kind of music I'd been playing, my main function was to be a timekeeper — I didn't have that many hot licks down. And I didn't have that much experience, so it was just through meeting other musicians at jam sessions and such, that one thing led to another."
It didn't take very long. Initially he took a job in radio, as he had during his last year in Vernon, but by the end of the decade he was working for many of Toronto's most prominent jazz figures: trombonist Ron Collier and reedmen Norm Symonds, Moe Koffman, and Phil Nimmons. In the following years, though, the best of his generation went into the studios, playing first for radio and tv, and then for the fledgling Canadian recording industry. Bickert went with them, becoming the city's first-call guitarist. But the music began to change and his interest waned.
"I've very few connections with this kind of thing now," he observed from the McClear Place lobby. "If it happens that the people I work with in the jazz world have something in the studios, I might get in on it."
The news, now a day old, about Bourbon Street, was not good. Another policy change, the second over the summer months, had reduced Canada's most famous jazz room to just another Toronto cabaret. In its heyday, Bourbon Street had been Bickert's avenue to the international scene.
Through his years in the studios, he had kept his hand in with various Toronto jazz groups, flutist Moe Koffman's popular band foremost among them. He still plays in this group, one of two standing commitments on the Toronto scene, along with the Boss Brass. His own groups are highly informal, especially since his partner through the 1970s, bassist/pianist Don Thompson, took up with George Shearing in 1982.
Again, Bickert might not have planned this better: as the studio calls decreased in the mid - '70s, the invitations to play behind visiting soloists at Bourbon Street increased. The list over the years has been varied but formidable: altoists Paul Desmond and Lee Konitz, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, cornetist Ruby Braff, flugelhorn player Art Farmer, the late trombonist Frank Rosolino, the tenor/ trumpet team of Scott Hamilton and Warren Vache, vibists Milt Jackson and Red Norvo, and several others.
Recordings followed with Desmond, Rosolino, Braff, and Hamilton/Vache. Desmond, who came out of semi-retirement on fellow guitarist Jim Hall's word of Bickert's harmonic sensitivity, took his entire Toronto rhythm section on the road for some of his final concert performances. Jackson, incredibly, got Bickert out as far as Japan in 1979.
By the Bourbon Street era, of course, the Bickert style was fully formed. It is not to diminish his solos, which are models of succinct melodicism, to suggest that the Bickert identity lies in the chords that he plays. They pulse with a soft glow as he pulls at them gently, a technique of plucking rather than strumming developed in the late '50s to meet the requirements of composer Norman Symonds, the Third Stream writer who employed Bickert in place of a pianist and then threw all sorts of odd, concert hall, keyboard harmony at him.
Bickert’s note selection is impeccable, his hearing acute. (Said one Toronto musician recently. "Ed Bickert, man, he can hear the paint peel.") He has listened to pianists — to Bill Evans, he has said, and to Red Garland, early Herbie Hancock, and others — and he developed his unique harmonic approach intuitively, "just by experimenting on my own, trying to find the nice chords that you get on a piano, realizing that I don't have as many notes to work with, and picking out the important ones. I'm sure that someone who knows his theory and harmony could do this very nicely without much experimentation, they would know which notes would give you what sound. I don't know that, so I've got to do it my way, listening and trying to find a grip on the guitar. Someone who got me thinking about this was [the late] Lenny Breau, because he had that talent for finding a couple of really important notes just to augment a chord."
Desmond was suitably amazed by his guitarist's gifts, and the two men played wonderfully literate jazz together. Looking back, Bickert most appreciated Desmond's encouragement — "just the fact that he enjoyed the way I was playing" — and his choice of tunes, those great pop songs which were fine by me."
Jackson's funky elegance, on the other hand, brought the guitarist out of himself. Bickert apparently liked what was revealed. "If I could play the guitar the way Milt plays the vibes."he remarked, in a rare burst of enthusiasm. "I'd be pretty happy."
He caught himself. "Well, maybe not completely and forever, but for a lot of the time."
A day after his return from the West Coast, Bickert was looking a week ahead to another concert with Vancouver tenorman Eraser MacPherson, this one at the Edmonton festival known as Jazz City. Their Concord appearance together had gone well enough to be recorded, and that release, together with duet and sextet albums with Rob McConnell, will keep Bickert represented on the international market.
It's just as well. He doesn't get out there much in person, at least not on his own, although singer Rosemary Clooney had him in her ensemble recently at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel, and he'll be traveling with Moe Hoffman's quintet early next year when it tours the West with Dizzy Gillespie.
There are always work permit problems for a Canadian musician who wishes to work in the U.S., even a musician with Bickert s reputation. Moreover, he said, sounding a familiar refrain, "I'm not a self-starter. That's the main problem. I haven't done much to drum up some business for myself. I would certainly welcome any chance to play where people would enjoy the music, to play with some other musicians, to be working somewhere other than Toronto." Without knowing quite where, or how, to begin, he seems to be aware that changes may be in order at one level or another.
"At the moment, if I were going to do more on my own, it would be more of the same. That bothers me a bit. I'd like to get something a little different going. I'm not sure what, and it's an immediate concern because I'm supposed to do another record for Concord soon, and I don't want to do another one just like the last one. I don't know whether I should try to play with some different guys, or trv to find some different material, or a different way of handling it. I've talked to Don Thompson about this. He thinks I should be playing something on records a little more modern than I have been. Which I can do, up to a point...."
The Bickert fan, however, need not fear. "What for me might be a bit of a departure, may not sound that much different to the listener," the guitarist suggested.
"I haven't really heard that many of the newer guitar players. Some of the few that I've heard, who are more up to date, like John Scofield, I enjoy. Ralph Towner ... I can't name too many. Some of it I enjoy; some of it I just appreciate. At the same time I don't think that I can start trying to play anything close to that, as far as being more modern, more sophisticated, or more assertive. That's partly because I don't have the background in harmony and such that some of the younger guys do. It's partly because I'm in that age bracket, I suppose, where you get settled into something. And it's partly my nature. I'm not an aggressive kind of person: the way I play's like that, too." db
ED BICKERT CHAPTER IN BOOGIE, PETE & THE SENATOR by Mark Miller (Nightwood; First Edition edition (January 1, 1987)
“His timing might have been a little better - generally it is impeccable - but Ed Bickert captured the essence of his own artistry one night late in 1981. The occasion was a Stephane Grappelli concert. The place, Massey Hall.
Bickert and bassist Dave Young were opening the evening for the great French violinist. Pausing between tunes, the guitarist started on the usual introductions.
"Can't hear you," interrupted a voice from the hall.
"Well," Bickert replied, coolly and without apology, "you'll just have to listen, because ! don't talk loud."
It has been noted probably too many times before: Bickcert’s is an art of understatement. "He's had to live with thai word," observed a Toronto critic, "the way Raquel Welch has had in live with the stares of men."
Not that it is inaccurate - this, after all, is the musician who would, in an already somnambulant set by the vibraphonist Red Norvo, take the ballad Emily as his own feature and make it the quietest piece of all.
No, "understatement" is merely incomplete. It reduces to a single quality - and single attitude, really, a complex, personal approach approach to jazz. It does not accommodate the kind of vivid harmonic colour that Bickert finds in the traditionally limited palette of the guitar - the kind of chordal extensions that, by judicious selection and elimination, he creates with just three or four notes and that, with a gentle touch, he gives a soft, pulsing glow It does not accommodate the supremely melodic qualities of his solos; their harmonic sophistication notwithstanding, their direction is essentially linear or rather, naturally linear, full of graceful movement and bluesy inflection. Nor does it accommodate his sensitivity to changing situations: it is a different Ed Bickert who swings freely behind Milt Jackson than the one who nudges Red Norvo along, a gentler spirit who accompanied the late Paul Desmond than the one who pushes Rick Wilkins.
Ultimately, it may speak only to the fact that all of these qualities together form a dynamic of their own, one that - subtle though it may be - needs no further emphasis. Far be it for Bickert to add what is unnecessary. Still speaking softly, he backs into the admission that, yes, he has what has become "a recognizable way of playing... a style, I suppose you could call it."
He talks out of the left corner of his mouth with a slight drawl that matches what Paul Desmond once noted was a resemblance to the Marlboro Man. ("His face," another writer began, taking up the image, "lean and bracketed by deeply etched vertical lines..." Bickert, however, smokes a different brand. Constantly.) His delivery would seem hesitant if it weren't so relaxed, with a "well" or an "I suppose" to pace the bolder assertions. He speaks much as he makes music, controlling the space around his statements, keeping them clear, unencumbered and to the point.
"The way I play," he once explained, sounding just a little apologetic at the time, "is the way I am as a person. I'm not an aggressive, adventurous type; I'm very traditional in a lot of areas of my life. I think that's pretty much how I play”
Like the man, and like his music, his career has been modest. Always in control. He is Canada's preeminent Jazz guitarist, an original whose unique harmonic vision has made him a man of some influence. Internationally, his work with Desmond, Jackson, the Boss Brass and, lately, the Concord Jazz stable, stands him in the '80s second only to Oscar Peterson as the country's most celebrated jazz musician. Yet such lofty distinctions have come to Bickert on his own terms; ever aware of what is comfortable and what is not, and moreover "not wanting to take a chance of things not working out," he simply played the music of his choice in the manner of his choosing and has been singularly reluctant to make himself heard by any other means.
In a career of more than 30 years, his most assertive move was the first one at 19, from Vernon, British Columbia, to Toronto, in a '35 Chevy. But once settled, forever settled, it seems, and the world has instead had to beat a path to Bickert's Scarborough door.
It was in 1952 that Bickert up and left Vernon behind. Taken there at the age of two, he picked his older brother's dobro guitar at 11 and played country music in the Vernon area of the Okanagan Valley with his father, a fiddler, and mother, a pianist. “Not country music as we know it today from Nashville," he would be quick to say years later, "just the kind of music that people in the country danced to: polkas, Viennese waltz-type- things, foxtrots, one-steps, two-steps, schottisches and I forget what else. "
By 1952 he had worked his way up through a couple of guitars and a couple of amplifiers; he had heard Oscar Moore with Nat King Cole on the radio; he had heard the "pre-machinery” Les Paul on records; he had not heard Charlie Christian at all; he had hawked the guitarists who played in the dance bands that travelled through the valley from Vancouver and found among them |azz players like Ernie Blunt and Gordie Brandt;i he had decided on a similar career for himself.
His resolve almost deserted him once he reached Toronto. “I was really taken aback by the guitar players I heard,” he once recalled. “I thought, “Well, I’m not ready for this!’ So I didn’t play at all for a couple of years. I worked at [radio station] CFRB as an engineer, and while I was doing that I gradually got a little fired up about music, met some musicians, played some sessions..."
Bickert, already in character, waited until he had the promise of steady work with reedman Jimmy Amaro (Sr.) at the Silver Rail before he left CfRB in 1955. After hours, he worked with Amaro's pianist, Norm Amadio, at the House of Hambourg, and began to make the acquaintance of the visiting musicians who would carry his name across the border. Bickert himself followed for the first time in 1956 as a member of an Amadio quartet that appeared at Birdland in New York. It was an ill-fated venture the band's bassist, Bob Schilling, died during the trip - and Bickert's ambitions narrowed immediately.
"The whole thing was overwhelming for me," he remembered, "going to the 'big, bad' city, and seeing what the 'big time' places like Birdland are really like. You hear about these places tor years and you imagine something magical and wonderful, but when you go there, they're funky and beat-up. Around the same time as we were there. Duke Ellington's band, Horace Silver's band, and Sal Salvador were all playing. And here we were, the hicks from Canada, coming down to try and play stuff that we, for the most part, had taken from American records. It was kind of ridiculous. Of course, to have Bob die there — the circumstances, and all the rest of it - was a real shock. It took me a long time to get over that."
Back home at the House of Hambourg, and not soon enough, the guitarist played a prominent role in a productive period for jazz in Toronto, the late '50s. Several musicians began to move toward major, jazz-related careers with Bickert at their side some or all of the way.
He was a member of the ensembles led by composers Norman Symonds and Ron Collier when they were exploring the third stream idiom, and it was Symonds' extended harmonic and textural vocabulary that demanded of Bickert a different approach to the guitar- first to cope with the composer's written three and four-note chords "not like any basic chord I've heard before" - and then to develop a right-hand technique with flat pick and three fingers, to pluck each note simultaneously rather than strum them in succession. Although the guitarist's work with Collier's quintet on a 1957 CBC recording of Symonds' Concerto Grosso reveals some familiarity now with Charlie Christian, or at least some ot Christian's many followers, it is tempered with that meticulous sense of measurement and space that is already Bickert's own.
He was with Phil Nimmons soon after the clarinetist's tentet began its long association with CBC radio in 1957. And he was with Moe Koffman for the flutist's recording of Swinging Shepherd Blues that same year; Bickert was still with Koffman for a new version of the hit in 1973, and he remains to this day in the flock, even as his own cachet in jazz has far surpassed that of his most frequent employer.
As a result of his work with Ron Collier, Bickert was hired in the mid-50s to help "update" the rhythm section of the Howard Cable Orchestra that played for "Showtime" on CBC TV. Studio work was not something he sought out, he once noted of the activity that would dominate the next 15 years of his career, although, he admitted, "it was something that a lot of people, including myself, were interested in because it was sort of a prestige thing - it showed you weren't just fooling around."
Clearly not fooling around, Bickert settled into a busy, it sheltered career, hidden not only in Toronto, but largely in Toronto studios, his ambitions in jazz adjusted though apparent not entirely lost. "If I had a chance to sit in for one occasion with any group in the world," an emboldened Bickert suggested in 1957 to a Globe and Mail reporter, "I'd like to try Oscar Peterson’s.”
Eventually, the chance would come "People like Oscar Peterson to Stan Getz would say, 'Oh yeah, we've got to get together and do this or that.' And I'd say,'Yeah, I'm interested.' And that would be the end of it... It's like someone saying, ‘We must have lunch sometime.’”
Peterson called in 1980, and it was a very light meal, indeed - a CanCon, The Personal Touch, of pop songs by Canadian songwriters ranging from Sheldon Brooks to Gene MacLellan, recorded with Canadian musicians for Canadian release.
By then, though, several U.S. musicians had also employed Bickert's talents, and to much better ends at that. Paul Desmond was the first, in 1974, and the three recordings that the two men made together. Pure Desmond and two live sets from Bourbon Street in Toronto, were effectively the guitarist's formal introduction to the international jazz scene. The subsequent rise in the same quarter of Rob McConnell's Boss Brass, of which Bickert had been an important member from the band's beginnings in 1968, substantiated the guitarist's emergence.
The time was excellent. Bickert had left the studios a few years before "a mutual parting," he would say later - as the range of styles demanded of him there outstripped his own interests. "The odd time I get called to do something where it befits my ears, like playing a Freddie Green kind of rhythm in a big band for a jingle or a record date. And occasionally someone gets a date that, there again, could be done by any one of a dozen guys, and maybe he decides I should have it for the sake of hating a job. I've certainly made of point of not getting into situations that I don't think I'm suited for, and I think most of the people who are hiring know that."
From the early '70s on, he instead divided his time between George's Spaghetti House and Bourbon Street. Moe Koffman's quintet has remained his first priority at George's, where he has also played for Rob McConnell. Don Thompson and Rick Wilkins and with the younger guitarist Lorne Lofsky. The visiting leaders who requested his services during the Bourbon Street era that ended in the mid-80s with the club's demise included Jackson and Norvo, Art Farmer, Lee Konitz, Ruby Braff, Frank Rosolino and the Concord All Stars.
Rosolino and Braff made recordings with Bickert, Thompson and drummer Terry Clarke in 1976 and 79 respectively; Jackson coaxed the guitarist to Japan - a coup, surely - in 1979; and the Concord musicians invited him to their festival in California after recording an album under his name at Bourbon Street in 1983. He made a second Concord Jazz album later that year, a third in 1985, and he has appeared on others for the U.S company by Rosemary Clooney, Eraser MacPherson and Benny Carter.
His own Concord Jazz releases. The Ed Bickert 5 At Toronto Bourbon Street (CJ-216), Bye Bye Baby (CJ-232) and I Wished on the Moon (CJ-2K4) bring the total to 11 since 1975. There were two live trio sets, one from George's for PM Records (PMR 010) in 1975 and one from The Hague, Holland, for Radio Canada International (RCI 503) in 1979. There were two albums with Don Thompson, one of guitar/bass duets (Sackville 4005) from 1978, and the other, Dance to the Lady, of guitar/ piano duets (Sackville 4010) from 1980. There were two more collaborations. Mutual Street (Innovation JC 0009) with Rob McConnell, recorded in 1982 and '84, and a quartet album with Lorne Lofsky (Unisson DDA-1002) in 1985. And there was one MOR set for the Canadian Talent Library in 1977 - his least revealing record with his most revealing title, I Like to Recognize The Tune.
The tunes, generally, are the great pop songs of the '30s and '40s - from Hollywood and Broadway, from the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart or Hammerstein, Carmichael, Mercer, Allen. . "A big part of that," he once observed, "is familiarity. It seems as though I have to know something really well before I can mess with it at all …. I learned an awful lot of songs between the ages of 10 and 20; it was a kind of magic thing to be able to learn songs, to start playing some of the chords that go with them,and at that age of discovery, a lot of things made a deep impression on me...
“So I identify with the older tunes, which are from a more sentimental era. And maybe that's how I feel about playing. Perhaps I’m just reacting to a lot of the things that have been going on over the past few years. Pretty things are out. It has to be hip, energetic and sometimes just straight-ahead angry.
“It’s probably a reaction to that," he concluded, sounding all apologetic, because a lot of that is just not part of my personality.”
To be continued in Part Two - Ed Bickert - The Views of Other Musicians
On the following video montage, Ed is joined by fellow guitarist on Charlie Parker's A-Leu-Cha with Neil Swainson, bass and Jerry Fuller, drums.