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The Life and Times of Archie Alleyne, Toronto's Greatest Jazz Drummer

Archie Alleyne is a Canadian treasure who is known for his improvisational swing and bebop style drumming, as well as his work with jazz greats such as Billie Holiday. This is his story, in his own words.
March 8, 2015, 5:00pm

This article originally appeared on Noisey Canada.

Illustrations courtesy of Ben Ruby & Yuliya Tsoy

Known for his improvisational swing and bebop style drumming, as well as his work with jazz greats such as Billie Holiday, Ben Webster, and Lester Young, it's easy to see why Archie Alleyne is a Canadian treasure. Alleyne was one of the first black musicians allowed to play at white-only venues like the famous Town Tavern at a time when black people were barred from going to Toronto’s entertainment districts. Now he's responsible for The Archie Alleyne Scholarship Fund, which awards bursaries to artists around the GTA for their musical achievements and community work. “Archie, man. He's really a testament of passion. He's passed 80 years of age, but his love for the art is making his fire burn ever so brightly,” says poet and musician Mustafa Ahmed, a former recipient of the AASF scholarship.

At 82 years old, Alleyne tells us, in his own words, about the very early history of Toronto jazz and the birth of his love for the genre.

Kensington Market in the 30s

I was born in 1933 and raised in Kensington Market. For those unaware, you have to understand that the black population in Toronto—although I could be exaggerating—was no more than 1500 black families in the area. That’s why I know the area around Kensington so well, because that’s where most of us were. From Spadina and Dundas reaching across University to Bathurst and up as far as Harbord, we were the minorities. But it was wonderful there. I ate Jewish food and they ate Black food, and we all went to school together and just meshed well. All the businesses were basically Jewish. Blacks didn’t have no businesses of our own because it was difficult for us to even walk in somewhere, far less own it. That was back in the beginning when they were just implementing anti-discriminatory laws in Canada. My grandmother grew up in Rosedale and started working [in Toronto] as a domestic, doing housekeeping and other services as head honcho for her employer’s house. My dad was a railroad porter with the Pullman company, because in those times those were the only real jobs available for males here. The bigger company was Canadian Pacific Railway, but the Pullman company was good because of the benefits. A lot more lucrative.

1930’s Kensington Market via KMHS

Back then, in the home of every black family, we’d all be listening to [jazz] artists like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, or else it was R&B. And of course someone would be playing along. That was the only entertainment we had. Black people weren’t allowed to go the clubs back then and the fact that my parents were a mixed couple—my mom was white, my dad was black—made it even worse. Even the El Mocambo, I remember it was just being built around the corner from where I lived, we couldn't go. The only establishment where any of us could go in for a drink would be the Paramount Theatre, and it was a long walk. It’s funny how Spadina and Dundas-I call it “The Village of Spadina and Dundas”- is where Chinese people mainly live now, because only blacks and Jews populated that area in my time. I used to just sit there sometimes by the liquor store and just cool out for a bit.

Love for the Ol’ Folk Blues

To be honest, my interest in music came from not wanting to work during the day [laughs]. I worked when I was in my teens down by the government area on Spadina, making and delivering buttons 12 hours per week. I quickly realized I didn’t want to grow up to be a railroad porter, even though there were no other jobs available. But even then music was just…man I love it. It would be playing all throughout the neighbourhood, I would be beating the drum in my house. Everybody would be singing and dancing—that shit just gets embedded into you. I just love it. From there I got involved with playing music through a good friend of mine, the drummer Ron Rully, who lived on Lippincott Street just off of Harbord. Ronnie set up my first engagement as a drummer at a church on the corner of Bathurst and College. That was actually the first church my grandmother went to when she came from Barbados. The church was having a weekend dance downstairs and Ronnie was supposed to play with the band there, but he couldn’t make it. So, he called me like, 'Archie, do you want to do this?' and I was like 'sure'. I had a snare drum and a hi-hat with a cymbal and stool so I brought it over there and I played for about an hour and got three bucks for it. That would be my first gig. I never turned back.

From there, I started to infiltrate the white music scene because that’s where the bread was. No one was hiring blacks so I started playing with talented white [jazz musicians] like Bill Goddard, who was a well known saxophone player, and Dave Hammer, who's a good friend of mine. Then television and radio came and they all ended up being studio musicians, which was very lucrative at that time. Eventually they had these sessions where I could play at. Actually the first person to initiate me was drummer Jack McQuade [co-owner of Canada’s largest music store, Long & McQuade]. He introduced me to a couple of jazz clubs to play at, but it wasn’t easy. I wasn’t accepted initially because of the colour of my skin and got a lot of insults and other bullshit thrown my way when I would play. Eventually, my name became more known because I would play my ass off on those drums. Then I started getting calls to do a couple sessions here and there and that built up to church basement gigs and legion hall engagements and getting eight bucks for three hours. Man, I remember I would have to take these old rickety streetcars with these big ass drums sitting on my lap to a gig and then I’d get my money and have to take a cab back home. Usually my week would consist of a couple of sets, but the rest of it was mostly jam sessions at the club with me and the gang getting high and playing all night. We would just jam out for hours and that’s how you would get better as a player. But man, you always had to call Archie because no one was playing as aggressively and hasty as I was. To me being aggressive on the drums was just my concept of what jazz was. Jazz is just as much about music as it is the origin of why you play. It’s black music.

At that time a lot of music was being played, predominantly by white people in Los Angeles who would do studio sessions for the film industry there. That could range from signature tunes in the movies or original compositions. So local jazz musicians would utilize those tunes and change up the chord arrangement for improvisational purposes. On my off time in the neighbourhood, I would practice playing those tunes at this recreational centre called Saint Christopher house. That place was like our local YMCA, where all the black kids would hang out and play basketball or have another jam session. We’d also go by 355 College Street to UNIA [United Negro Improvement Association] Hall, which was put together by political rights leader Marcus Garvey. The local community including myself would use both of those places for meet-ups and organized picnics. The space was no bigger than my apartment but we accomplished a lot and made some great tunes there, man. In fact, a lot of musicians started from there initially.

As my reputation grew I became a first-call drummer for jazz sessions in Toronto. People knew me for having a good time, and when it came to sounds, I could tune into what was playing and adapt using my ears. Nobody else was playing like me. In fact they’re still trying [laughs]. But yeah, back then I used to get comparisons to black drummers like Max Roach, along with Kenny Clark, and Gene Krupa. Max is actually one of my idols, and I’ve been lucky enough to play with him and his bandmates Clifford Brown, Richie Powell and George Morrow when they used to come down to Toronto. Man, I would jam with those guys until 3 or 4 in the morning, and they would tell me I sounded just like Max. And hey, that’s not a bad reputation to have [laughs]. I would run into a lot of talented musicians quite often playing at the Town Tavern, which was one of the main jazz establishments on Queen, at the corner of Victoria Street. The other was the Colonial Tavern, which was the first black-owned club, and was just down the road on Yonge Street. They were so close you could actually go to one club, catch a set, then go to the other between beers. Either way, they had little singing groups going into town and so one of my friends asked the owner why he didn’t have jazz performers in there. The owner didn’t know where to look and my friend was like, 'I got just the guy.' So, he called me and I went in with a local group, to the Town, and ended up playing there for 13 years.

As jazz became bigger, the club wanted to start booking American acts. But in order to bring in these acts we had to have a piano player that was able to read music and take care of everything. So I hired my personal friend, and one of the finest piano players in the country, Norm Amadio. With that taken care of, these acts from across the country would come and we would back them up. Every Monday we would have rehearsal, depending on how long the bands were staying. Most times it was about a week, but if they were a good group they would stay for two. From there, I ended up with a steady gig and started making some good bread. Soon after, I would be backing guys from New York—Eddie C. Campbell, Harry Edison, and Teddy Wilson. They were all like, 'you got to come down to New York and play there'. Back then that’s where everybody usually went. But I would decline. There were a lot of good musicians down there but I didn’t want to go down to the city just to stand in line for another job. So I stayed here and it ended quite well. I got a lot of work at Town and the Colonial because the American performers would always ask for talented black backing groups, and of course they would bring me in. It even got to the point where the artists’ managers would call up the clubs in advance and say they wanted me on the drums. That was a big thing back then because it wasn’t until 1947 that black musicians were able to work on Yonge Street. The clubs wouldn’t hire local black musicians for incoming groups because they didn’t want us to bring in the neighbourhood. The chap that actually broke that barrier was a talented Nova Scotian piano player, and the owner of the Colonial, named Cy McLean. That was in 1947. Then about four years later, that’s when I went into Town and broke that barrier playing inside a white-owned club. Both me and Cy pushed through a lot of the discrimination in music. Mind you there was still trouble at the Town for the local black guys, but it was like,“Archie is at the Town let’s go catch him working.” Let me paint a picture for you: my friends would have to call me and ask if they could get in and I would tell them to come down. Town didn't have doormen, but there were bouncers by the front door because there was always a fight going on. I’d tell them to come to the door and say they knew me and walk straight to the bar, have a couple drinks and enjoy the music. By the time the guy at the door realized what happened they’d be ready to leave anyways.

I can’t really pinpoint when blacks were allowed inside clubs, but it certainly took a couple of years. I don’t think I have to tell you it wasn’t just jazz clubs that wouldn’t let people of colour in but other establishments as well. If you’re familiar with Wasaga Beach, the pavillion there called the Dardanella, black musicians couldn’t work there. Even with all that I was just glad that I was able to get work and a paycheque at the end of the week. This was the golden era of jazz the likes of which we’ll never experience again so it didn’t even matter. These were the musicians that created the music without all the electronics going on now. The jobs were great and all the guys who played were wearing a shirt, tie and a suit. You never saw a pair of jeans, running shoes or a T-shirt with graffiti on stage. If you did the owners and audience wouldn’t let you on the bandstand because music was all about respect. And now its like… when fashion becomes more important than the music that’s not a good thing. Just look at how some of these women dress nowadays. You know who was a real woman, Billie Holiday. I got the greatest story for her.

A Night With Billie Holiday

The band and I just finished playing in Stratford, Ontario for the Stratford Festival. Billie Holiday was booked there for a concert in the evening so of course that meant she was booked to go to the Town. And that also meant the club was going to book us. Anyways, we go and have rehearsals with her and just play a wonderful evening of music. I mean here you have me; this young 25 year-old kid playing on stage with Holiday and just - holy shit, you could feel the music all over. I remember my parents would play her records and hearing it throughout the house. Getting back to the story, we get to the Town and no surprise, the place is packed waiting for Holiday while we’re just jamming away. So, she hits the stage and I’m beating the drums with my eyes closed just feeling the beat for her song, “God Bless The Child” and then she opened her voice and everything stopped. I had to open up my eyes to see what was going on because I couldn't believe there were people still watching the show. I remember it to this day because the place went from quiet to like, deafening silence. The cash register stopped, all conversations came to a dead stop, the kitchen staff had left the back and we’re out with the audience listening, I was—everybody in the room was just like, whoa. It was frightening. They looked like mannequins staring back at us. But man, those were such fun times. Jazz was really at its prime then and that was like the 1950’s. And then I officially stepped away in the latter part of 1968 after my accident.

The Accident and Leaving the Game

Pretty much what happened was I fell asleep driving along the lakeshore. I must have started back at Sherbourne after finishing a gig. I don’t remember exactly but I think I dozed off behind the wheel while my foot was still on the pedal and that ended up jetting my car straight into a lamp post. When the police found me they said that my engine—I had a small 1964 Peugeot station wagon—got pushed into the back of the car because of the force. Fortunately, where I had my accident was the usual route for garbage trucks and luckily those guys have two way radios so one of them called the ambulance after hearing my friend. From what I understand the ambulance found me with the back of my skull split. I was losing fluids from my scalp and everything. I was pretty much dead before they patched me up and it would be two months before they cleared me to go.

Looking back, I think I was already a little burnt out with music. I mean I was playing all day and all night. Mix that with a little bit of drinks, a puff here or there, and then the accident, I was forced to step back a bit. While I stepped away my good friend, Howard Matthews and his wife Salome Bey—one of the great Canadian jazz musicians—along with Argos football player Dave Mann and one of the first black quarterbacks in professional football, John Henry Jackson, opened the Underground Rail Soul Food restaurant by Bloor and Sherbourne and brought me in as a partner. Unfortunately, the restaurant started to fall apart in the 80’s. I kind of saw the writing on the wall for me so I dusted off my drums and came back to the jazz scene around ‘81, 82. I wasn’t doing nothing too big, just small shows here and there to keep my eyes on what was going on in the music scene. From there I put my own band together—well, actually my old band called, The Archie and Frank Wright Quartet, which was an all black group of local musicians. Coming back to jazz after so long was a bit of an adjustment because I had lost my position in the scene, but things did smoothen out quickly. Me and the band played for a while because jazz was still in good shape and studio work was good too. I actually did more studio work my second go-around which was a godsend because there’s a pension contribution that comes with being in the [Musician’s] Union. Even now, I’m still collecting [laughs].

Changing Tune

A lot of people ask when jazz went downhill or stopped becoming popular and I can’t really answer that question. It’s still going. It’s just not as prevalent and the music itself has changed drastically. In my time, jazz was very much a social exchange. We would play till 4 A.M. and if there were no gigs we would just go have lunch together. That really affected the music too because you could just feel the compatibility. Those type of things don’t happen anymore. Now, music is just a sheet of music that looks like fly shit; just notes scattered all over the damn place. The whole groove is gone. At one time I could identify every musician on a record by year because you could single out their styles and musical expressions. But now everyone sounds the same. You got to put a name underneath the single to be able to tell who they are.

Now there are too many musicians without money coming out of school and heading to New York—which is already overloaded with them. And back here in Toronto is no better. All the old clubs have been brought down, the social clubs, everything. We only got the Jazz bistro and the Pink Box but nothing is really happening there either. It’s tough man, there’s very few places to work as a musician. That’s why you find a lot of musicians working at recreational centres down here teaching trying to make a little bit of change. Even for studio musicians. How many shows do you see with a pit band on the front stage? It’s not like before where you go up to play and wait for ladies to throw their panties at you [laughs]. You got to book the gig, negotiate the costs, even getting on the road now is expensive. Before you use to get grants and all that shit to cross the pond. I remember I did a tour for six weeks through Africa with [jazz musician] Oliver Jones. Now, just going across Canada costs money. It’s not even worth it. To be honest, when people ask if they should get into the music industry I tell them I don’t recommend it. And if they decide they want to do it anyways I say, “You better go to school and learn all aspects of music because its a business that you really need to understand.

It’s funny because I have a weird relationship with school and music. I use to teach when I was younger, but I didn’t enjoy it because I felt I wasn’t that great at it. I could explain very well the type of attitude you need to play your drums and how sensitive the instrument was to touch. Drums are like children you know; you have to treat them gently and tune them to get the best sounds. Most classes have books that can teach you the rudiments and how to read music so you don’t really need someone like me to help on that end. I myself am not a sight reader so I can’t just start playing a song as soon as I see a sheet of paper. I read music with my ears and after a couple times I’ll get it. That’s how a lot of us in my time learned, because there weren’t many schools teaching us how to read music or teaching music in general. During the early 40’s there was only the Conservatory of Music which taught classical music on University street, south of College street. Now, there are many more schools to house talented musicians. And I mean I too want to help grow the next generation which is why I try to coaching these artists and help give them the money they need to pursue their career. So, right now I have a scholarship fund in my name called the Archie Alleyne Scholarship Fund. About seven years ago my friends’ Howard Matthews and president of the Bread in the Street community development foundation, Paget Warner felt I should be recognized for my efforts in Jazz, so they put it together in 2003 for my 70th birthday. By now, I’ve given out about 22 scholarships plus bursaries to students every year that I handpick myself. The most recent is this kid named, Isaiah, great little drummer who's studying at Humber College.

I think its important that jazz’s period of time in Toronto is never forgotten and that we keep supplying knowledge of all the barriers we brought down for blacks and musicians in general, to a younger generation. Whether that’s telling them about my struggles or helping out the youth with theirs, I want to see these kids succeed. I don't care what type of music you play as long as you play your instrument well, you’re able to compose, read and do the things that are necessary. That’s what's important.

Jabbari Weekes is a writer living in Toronto - @daysandweekes