Bruce Cassidy returns to Toronto


Geoff Chapman – Jazz

June 9, 2005

Bruce Cassidy has been around.

Born in Fredericton and schooled in Nova Scotia, he made the leap into jazz in the late 1950s, getting his start in the company of trumpeters Herbie Spanier and Guido Basso and pianist Joe Sealy.

A trumpeter himself, he was soon performing at Toronto’s main jazz venues and in studios, appearing on the first seven albums released by Rob McConnell’s Boss Brass, for example.

Yet he always had an ear for what he calls “the rock-ish and the pop-ish” and this led to extended playing and touring with Dr. Music (Doug Riley), Lighthouse and, later, the raucous Blood, Sweat and Tears.

He has also played in concert with Duke Ellington, Dionne Warwick, Marvin Gaye, Chucho Valdez, Bob Hope and the Toronto Symphony.

He’s spent most of the past 25 years in South Africa, but will lead his Hotfoot Orchestra on Saturday afternoon at The Rex.

This is a strong 10-piece band that includes the Promane brothers (alto saxist Mark and trombonist Terry), trumpeter Kevin Turcotte, tenor saxist Michael Stuart, Doug Gibson on tuba and a rhythm foursome chaired by pianist Tom Szczesniak with guitarist Jake Langley, bass Mike Pellarin and drummer Ben Riley.

Cassidy conducts, plays trumpet and flugelhorn and what he calls his instrument of choice, the Electronic Valve Instrument (EVI), essentially a synthesizer for a trumpeter. (Jazz ace Michael Brecker plays a version of this designed for saxophone.)

In an interview, Cassidy explains how a musical tour to South Africa with Blood Sweat and Tears in 1981 led to much other work.

“I composed for television series, produced TV specials, produced albums, led groups, arranged music for orchestras and wrote for feature films in varying styles.

“Yet what matters there is African music, and my large group was unusual and made sophisticated music, not really right for there, though I believe it incorporates raw, natural elements that I hope to keep exploiting. On Saturday there’ll be an African tune or two.”

Cassidy returned to Canada in 2003, noting that the AIDS crisis and rampant crime gives South Africa “the feel of a Wild, Wild West” and felt his daughter would get a better education here.

“I love writing and performing, doing songs that are familiar and unfamiliar. My major influence is Gil Evans and I like to give my players an immense sense of freedom, with spontaneous composition playing a key role.

“Jazz musicians here play with emotion and they even come to rehearsals. They’re virtuosi who have too much fun and they make up a band that’s very interesting and very energetic.”

Since his return, Cassidy has completed with a Los Angeles partner the first jazz play-along book for French horn, arranged a performance of Joe Zawinul’s classic “Birdland” for 16 French horns, composed and produced an opera, The Clay Flute, and created charts for Rick Morrison’s Carnival of Souls.

Current projects include arrangements for pianist Andrew Burashko’s pioneering Art of Time Ensemble, forming a new band for Blood, Sweat and Tears vocalist David Clayton-Thomas, working in free-form trios with players like Rob Piltch and Shelly Berger and performing what he calls “healing music.”

Cassidy is also working in a new combo with pianist Sealy, starting a duo with Sudanese expatriate multi-instrumentalist Waleed Abdulhamid and appearing at next month’s jazz and blues festival in Burlington.

Cassidy had to turn down two offers to play gigs at this month’s Downtown Jazz Festival, since he’d already committed to conducting an international jazz band at an arts festival in Grahamstown, South Africa.

During 2000 and 2001 I supervised David Lilley for his performance master’s degree. David was also teaching jazz at the Pretoria Technikon at the time. He was also secretary of the SAJE, the South African chapter of the International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE). Text of David’s interview follows;


Bruce Cassidy is a freelance player in Johannesburg. He has played with Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones, Blood Sweat and Tears, The Boss Brass, and all the local guys. His latest album is a duo called ‘Timeless’ featuring Bruce on EVI playing totally free improvisation, with Pops Mohamed on a variety of traditional African instruments.

So how did you get into playing trumpet?

I was self-taught. I never had lessons at all until I was 18.

You never took any ‘legit’ lessons before you got to Berklee?

A few. but I was mostly self-taught, until I went to Berklee.

You were with Herb Pomeroy?

Yeah, and no doubt he was my inspiration there. He was a marvel. When I arrived at Berklee, I thought I was pretty hot. I could spell all my major triads and I knew 5 or 6 major scales. I didn’t know shit!

I’ve always found it interesting that you are very much an exponent of the bebop tradition and yet you are also very into the free jazz thing.

I think it was Nick Brignola who said, “Bebop is the Mount Everest of jazz”. It’s much more challenging in many respects than some of the modal stuff that’s happening, but it’s now fallen out of favor. It’s now dated music.

Jazz is no longer what we call jazz. Hey, in England it’s another name for toilet. It’s a basketball team. It’s a disk drive. I have running shoes that are marked ‘jazz’. I see ‘jazz’ programs on TV and there’s no improvisation. I don’t know how they can call it jazz if it doesn’t involve some live creative juice.

So how do you tie in your love for bebop with the free jazz thing?

Well it’s a way to break out of the mold. It’s a progression. As a matter of fact there has been a lot of this since the beginning. I don’t know if I’d call it ‘free’. I just like to extend the boundaries a little bit. Even in the early days of bebop in the 50s with Mingus and before that with Duke there’s been this way of playing that’s very interesting. It’s a really challenging way to play. When my band or I play free the idea is to create music. It is not just to be weird. Sometimes it is weird; sometimes it is quite straight ahead. The big thing is, when you play free it is beyond judgement. It is not structured in the way that jazz ordinarily is. Even in bebop, you know you are going to hear a parade of solos, you hear a little interlude maybe and you’re going to hear the head back out again, and they’ve been doing that for more than 80 years.

I like things to be unstructured in some respect. Same as I didn’t want you to tell me what you were going to ask me. Just ask me and then we’ll talk about it. That’s much more real than me rehearsing what I’m going to say and then trotting something out that I think is clever. And the songs we play – what do we do? We practice them. We do all kinds of things that are very structured. I like not to know what is going to happen. When we get together we just get together and chat. We don’t decide – we’re going to get together tonight and we’ll talk about so and so, ok? And I’m going to say ‘so and so’ and what you’re going to say something you’ll find on page 37 of Roget’s Thesaurus or some crap. So it’s a really intimate means of expression and communication.

So how do you see free playing from the point of view of someone who is studying the music?

I think it is the antidote! As long as you have some fun with it and listen to everything that is going on around you, then it’s a really deep kind of musical exploration.

A friend of mine in Montreal, a long time ago, a guy called Billy Georgette, called his way of practicing anti-practice. You play for 5 minutes. You can play anything, but you have to play for 5 minutes. Then you stop. The idea is really interesting. When I moved to Toronto there was a marvelous trumpet player name Fred Stone. He had a totally unique approach. Not because he didn’t listen to anyone but because he obviously just played what he felt like. He ended up playing and writing for Duke Ellington in the 70s.

With my Hotfoot or Body Electric bands we do what I call “gazorkinplatzes”. My guys know what it means – we just play. And everybody loves doing it. I don’t know if the audience always enjoys listening to it. It can be challenging because you don’t know what’s going to happen and audiences everywhere aren’t known for being adventurous. If you ask for requests what do you get? Summertime!, Take Five or Happy Birthday. It can be brought off, but it’s really difficult to do with a large ensemble (Hotfoot is a 10 piece band) but I love the ‘noise’.

Even with the free thing you’ve still got that Clifford thing happening in your playing as well.

He’s the player for me that had it all as a trumpet player. His playing drips warmth and love and energy. He was a wonderful player. He’s the only fellow whose solos I learned to play because I thought they were so poetic. Of course when you cop someone’s licks they tend to get stamped on your playing and affect your style. It may or may not be a good idea.

So you transcribed his solos.

I never transcribed anything. I learned a couple by ear.

You never wrote anything down?

I did later. I arranged one of Clifford’s solos for the Boss Brass.

So you did the arrangements for the Boss Brass?

Oh no not generally! My arrangements were too far out for the band. The Boss Brass of that time, I haven’t heard it for quite a while, was the archetype of the well-oiled machine. That chart wasn’t particularly adventurous but generally my ‘for fun’ writing style was too different from Rob’s so we didn’t play it very often. Hey, I can’t complain, it was his band and his writing was and still is wonderful. With that arrangement of Daahoud Sam Noto once quipped – “let’s do Bruce’s chart in the first set so we can drink!” If we did it in the later set nobody could drink because it was so hard. I recall that the only time we ever had a sectional rehearsal (5 trumpets plus Rob) was for that chart of mine. The band never really rehearsed but we’d have a run-down of charts before the gig to check for copying errors. In those days we played together often in studio sessions and in TV series. Sadly, those days are gone.

How do you see the concept of formalized jazz education?

Oh boy!

If you want to be a jazz player listen to people and then go pick the brains of the people you like. Take some lessons with them if you like or just absorb what you hear and jump in and try it that way. All the great players that I dig – none of them ever went to music school – none of them had degrees. I think it’s a really weird thing – that you can have a doctor of the trumpet. Gimme a break! You know something is dead when they start teaching it at university! (Aside – sorry Mike!) Look out, degrees in ‘rap’ are next!

(laughing) Should we stop there?

No. Maybe we can upset someone else. The guys that teach here like Mike (Campbell) and Darius (Brubek) and your brother (Andrew Lilley); they know what I mean. They have a sense of proportion and humour.

Formalized education doesn’t have anything to do with this very visceral organic wonderful thing we call jazz! I consider jazz to be a kind of musical slang. But now you can have elocution lessons in that! They teach – ‘now this is the correct way’, ‘this is the blues scale’! Blues is a kind of feeling, it’s not a scale. That limits it severely. Its not a parade of chord changes, and people that play well don’t have this music school disease where they play up and down the chords or scales all the time. It’s empty, rootless music. It doesn’t mean anything. And unfortunately jazz education – more often than not – produces players that do this. They play really fast and high and clean and know a lot of licks and can play all the right changes. But they seem to have no idea of what this music is about. Of course to try to fill that gap they teach them the history of jazz!

Jazz education is for people who don’t really have a connection with this music and they ‘learn’ how to do it. Of course I must admit I’m partially a product of this, I went to Berklee. It was a wonderful thing for me. I came from a totally impoverished musical environment. In my town there was one guy who played sax and some optometrist who played trumpet. It was a bit of a musical backwater in eastern Canada.

To get back to this; It’s generally only for the ones who aren’t absorbed by the music, the ones who are, generally don’t go or quit school before they get corrupted. At Berklee the attitude was this; it’s OK to go there and you’re cool if you go there, but you’re not cool if you graduate! First of all if you’re any good you’ll get picked up by a band and you go on the road with Buddy Rich or Maynard or somebody, which were the bands of the time when I was there, and away you go. If you graduated you were just an academic. A juvenile attitude, no doubt, but you get the idea. The whole education thing is perverted. Jazz is a language. Jazz musicians speak music and the ones that can really play do just that. The ones that learn it, they sound funny. They’ve all got a weird accent, an educated accent. Generally I like the more organic players. This is just to make a point that I never hear discussed but I think there is some truth in it.

So how would you deal with it if you are involved in it?

The same way that you deal with any area of your life that is a challenge, just watch it. It’s useless to try to change it. You’re pissing into the wind – by ‘wind’ I mean society’s way. Don’t be impressed or seduced by the ‘educated jazz authority’ – maintain your distance and sense of humor and follow your own star. Music study not to be completely derided though. When I was complaining about having to do a hokey gig at one point my friend Jim Blackley said: “In every situation find the area of creativity and explore it.” You can even find it in a polka gig.

Hey, I’m not against education. It’s a wonderful thing insofar as it eradicates superstition. There used to be a superstition that if you read music you couldn’t swing. The anti-intellectual attitude that used to be prevalent “I just blow man” also sucks and fortunately is falling away. But education steps over the mark when it assigns marks and ranking to players. They reduce music to sport. I’d better not talk about sport.