The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
Claude Ranger: Canadian Jazz Legend

Mark Miller
(Mark Miller; Toronto; 2017)

Claude Ranger                                                                                                                ©2017 Mark Miller


On or about November 2, 2000, Claude Ranger left his one-room apartment in a subsidized housing complex on 30th Avenue in Aldergrove, never to return. He was 59. More than 16 years later, his fate is unknown; the investigation launched by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in early 2001 remains open.

Ranger’s disappearance followed a period of several years in which he had gradually disengaged from all of the things that had sustained him as a musician, including – finally – music itself.

It was, moreover, a period marked by a degree of reflection and regret. After 30 years of playing jazz – and, in truth, of living life – with a remarkable sense of immediacy, a love of risk and no particular concern for consequence, he began to assess his legacy.

He was still playing in 1996 when bassist Kieran Overs, visiting from Toronto, encountered him one late summer afternoon at the corner of Denman and Robson streets in Vancouver’s West End.

“I asked him how he was doing,” Overs remembers. “He said he was doing really well. Then he said, out of the blue, ‘I don’t want to be remembered as that guy with the cigarette in his mouth. That’s what everybody always talks about.’”

Overs understood. “He wanted to be known for his drumming. The thing that he didn’t realize is that he was known for his drumming, of course, but he was justified in his concern.”

Indeed, the cigarette perpetually tucked into – the left corner of his mouth, no less than the bottles of beer within easy reach at his side, were, in their way, tools in Ranger’s particular approach to his trade. Inevitably, they also became the trappings of his legend.

He expressed similar regret to Ivan Bamford in 2000 about the effect of those trappings on the way he was regarded by the public. “He felt he was famous because of those things at least as much as because of his accomplishments as a drummer and musician. If he had been more of a ‘straight’ guy, he wouldn’t have had all the notoriety.”

And yet there was an element of cultivation to Ranger’s notoriety. That cigarette, for example, with its impossibly long ash burning ever more impossibly longer. “It was a symptom of the absolutely disciplined carelessness that he had,” suggests the Toronto saxophonist Ron Allen, who worked with Ranger in 1980. “The way it would hang, defying gravity – he knew it was intimidating, he knew it was attractive, he knew how to seduce.”

Ranger had in fact stopped smoking by 1996, an act of remarkable willpower for someone who – in the words of a friend from as far back as the mid-1960s, Montreal bassist Michel Donato – “just needed one match in the morning; one match, that’s it.”

He had also stopped drinking, at least for a time, and he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He sold his drums to Ivan Bamford in 1997 and made his final public appearance at Vancouver’s du Maurier International Jazz Festival in 1998. Long the ladies’ man, he moved to Aldergrove alone.

If Ranger’s demons and his dependencies, and their effect on his career, are necessarily a part of his story, it is nevertheless his skill as a musician, his impact on the jazz scenes of Canada’s three largest cities, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, and his influence on many of the country’s younger players that make that story worth telling.

It is a story of passion, dedication, compromise and intransigence, of generosity and negligence, of hurt both felt and caused. It is also the story of jazz in Canada more broadly during the 30 years in which Ranger was a significant force, a story that reflects his contrarian perspective in face of the conservatism and commercialism that characterized the music as it was played by its most popular figures – many of whom he worked with, if only in passing and in some dismay.


He was a small, handsome man, five-foot-seven or so, portly for a time in his early thirties, but trim in later years, the result of a passion for cycling. His eyes were his most arresting feature, “blue like the ocean,” in the words of one friend. His gaze, especially toward women, could be penetrating.

His French accent also helped in that respect, the mark of a Québécois abroad, as in effect Ranger was for the last 25 years of his career, first in Toronto and then in Vancouver. He was nevertheless conflicted about the language itself and, more specifically, about the way he spoke it.

“I don’t like French,” he once admitted in accented English. “I have this against French – it’s not that I hate it, it’s us Québécois, like me. I don’t speak very good French, you know? When guys from overseas come and start speaking French, it’s so beautiful, I hate it.”

He was not, in any event, very talkative in either language, communicating most comfortably instead through music, a man for whom – as the Toronto bassist Mike Milligan observes – “a gig wasn’t just a gig, and a concert wasn’t just a concert, it was a major life event.”

Beyond music, Ranger lived in a state of restless creativity. He melted wax crayons into sculptures, he drew, he did jigsaw puzzles, he took up photography for a time, he refinished drums and he made furniture, seeking in each of these activities an opportunity to lose himself to the immediacy of the task at hand – much as he lost himself in music.

In his preoccupation with the moment he gave no thought to his legacy until his career was all but over. But the fact that he left very little to show for his life in music is also a reflection of the Canadian jazz scene, which went largely undocumented in the 1960s and 1970s and only gradually less so in the 1980s and 1990s.

The Ranger discography comprises some 20 LPs or CDs as a sideman and none as a leader, an altogether random, incomplete and often poorly recorded survey of a career that lasted nearly 40 years. About 30 of his compositions, including his best known piece, Le Pingouin, survive on commercial or private recordings, as airchecks from Radio-Canada broadcasts or as lead sheets that have inadvertently remained in the possession of a very few of the many musicians who played them with him. The exercises that he so freely and generously wrote out for his fellow drummers are similarly, if more widely scattered across the country, copied and passed down through three or four successive generations.

The recordings are difficult to find, the compositions rarely performed. The exercises continue to have currency, but orderly patterns of eighth notes on score paper convey only Ranger’s discipline as a musician, not the spirit of his playing – the spirit that made him such a compelling figure on the bandstand to those who rose to the challenges that went with it, as many musicians across the country did, whether for a night or two, or over a period of years.

The scant documentation of his legacy notwithstanding, he remains a compelling figure in the history of jazz in Canada, all the more for his disappearance, a scarcely conceivable turn of events that has had the effect of elevating him beyond legend into myth – in the words of the Montreal artist and essayist Raymond Gervais, “an enigma bordering on fiction.” His story is nevertheless real enough, even in the absence of a formal conclusion. It simply stops, an unresolved narrative that has left those who knew him – whether personally or professionally, intimately or from a distance – without closure.

It was not until November 2012, a dozen years after his disappearance, that some 20 Vancouver musicians finally gathered to pay their respects with two concerts at the Ironworks Studios under the banner “Feu vert: A Tribute to Claude Ranger.” One of those musicians, drummer Dylan van der Schyff, visited Toronto a few months later for an engagement at The Rex. By then, I had undertaken the preliminary research for Claude Ranger: Canadian Jazz Legend, but had not decided whether to make it the basis of a book; van der Schyff supported the idea immediately.

“Don’t just do it for Claude,” he suggested, as if speaking on behalf of all the people whose lives Ranger had touched. “Do it for us.”


“If I get one good horn player, I’m straight,” Claude Ranger once remarked. “The thing is, it’s hard to find someone who can improvise their own way, not the way everyone does it on record, but new, fresh.”

His search, which he undertook repeatedly throughout his career, had something of a Diogenean quality to it. Ranger’s “honest man” was a saxophonist unreservedly of his or her own mind – a rarity in Canada, where jazz musicians looked for their lead precisely to the way their American counterparts did it “on record,” as indeed he himself had initially looked to Max Roach, Elvin Jones and Tony Williams.

At some point in the summer of 1967, however, he met Brian Barley at la Jazztek [in Montreal]. “Right away,” he remembered, “the first time I played with him – I was working with Lee Gagnon – I said, ‘Lee, I’m joining Brian, we’re making a band!’”

As in fact they did, although neither as quickly as Ranger seemed to imply, nor at the expense of his place with Gagnon’s quartet at la Jazztek; Ranger would continue to work there intermittently well into1968. Whatever the timing of events, he had found in Barley a saxophonist who was willing and able to “go further” – someone, moreover, who knew about Archie Shepp and Ornette Coleman, as well as about John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and especially Sonny Rollins.

Barley was not unique in Montreal during the 1960s in his openness at least to Rollins and Coltrane. Wimp Henstridge had been influenced by Rollins, as had Alvin Pall by Coltrane. Ron Park, who moved between Toronto and Montreal in this period, had listened closely to Rollins and Coltrane in turn, although primarily to their late-1950s, hard-bop recordings. Barley, never comfortably a bebopper, looked instead to later Coltrane, and to the 1960s avant-garde more generally, retaining something of Rollins’ syntax in his solos but finding his own voice in the expressive extremes explored by Coltrane, Coleman and Shepp.

Barley and Ranger had spent most of their respective professional lives to that point on very different paths. Barley – younger by almost two years, originally from Toronto and the son of a United Church minister – seemed destined for a career as a clarinetist in classical music. He had been a member for three seasons of the National Youth Orchestra of Canada and had played on occasion in the Cleveland Orchestra and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, all the while dabbling in jazz as a secondary interest.

In May of 1966, however, he suffered a severe head injury in an automobile accident en route back to Vancouver from a concert by pianist Bill Evans in Seattle. The epileptic seizures that followed, and the medication that he took to control them – no less than the recreational drugs that he used to offset the side effects of the medication – left him increasingly at odds with the formalities of the classical world, and they with him.

Although he continued to work from time to time in that realm after he moved to Montreal in the fall of 1966, he found more comfort, musically and socially, with the city’s jazz community. He established himself quickly enough to take his place in the bands that Maynard Ferguson staffed locally for concerts at Expo 67, a sextet in May and a big band in June.

Though gentle by nature, a man of fashion and quite humorous, he could be headstrong on the bandstand. His sense of purpose and his intensity as an improviser brought him opportunities to work with Pierre Leduc, Ron Proby and Herbie Spanier, all of whom valued such qualities in a bandmate. He also played in the fall of 1968 with the American drummer Charles Moffett, lately of the Ornette Coleman Trio.

But those same qualities also came at a price. “Brian had quite a hard time,” Ranger notes. “He really wanted to play. Every time he had a gig, he wanted to play so much, really play, that he kind of overplayed it. So he was never hired very often. It seemed as though there was only one kind of music for him, one kind of playing, and that’s what he did.”

Ranger might well have been describing himself in the later years of his own career. For the moment, though, he and Barley, kindred spirits, worked in each other’s bands on Jazz en liberté, crossed paths in Lee Gagnon’s absence at la Jazztek – evidently Barley was not welcome otherwise – and appeared together with Proby and Spanier at the Black Bottom.

“Brian is probably why I play jazz,” Ranger once observed. “It was with him that I went ‘outside’ a little bit.” On another occasion he admitted, “It seems to me that Brian’s the one who taught me how to play jazz, because he was a ‘heavy’ and I was very fortunate to play with him.”

At the very least, Barley affirmed the viability of Ranger’s determination to strive for a level of freedom and expression that went beyond the norm in Montreal. Together, they formed a trio in 1968 with Michel Donato and committed themselves to rehearsals that could run seven or eight hours a day at Barley’s residence on Lincoln Avenue. And even that, apparently, was not enough for Ranger.

“Michel, he would drive me nuts,” he complained later. “He used to stop and go off for lunch.”

And if not lunch, Donato would break away no less pragmatically for studio work; he, alone among the three musicians, played in Montreal’s radio, television and recording orchestras. Ranger and Barley simply continued on without him.

“We had more fun, just Brian and me,” Ranger remembered. “Just drums and tenor. We used to play outside on the street – for nothing. But lots of people. The music was something very scary for Montreal, but everybody loved it. We used to play for nothing! Five dollars, two dollars, six dollars!”

Jazz en liberté
broadcasts aside, opportunities for all three musicians together were scarce. “I believe that we were the only ones to play this type of music in Montreal,” Donato told Alain Brunet of La Presse in 2003, noting the inspiration that they had taken from Sonny Rollins’ trio with Oscar Pettiford and Max Roach, which had recorded The Freedom Suite in 1958, and pointing to the latitude that they enjoyed in the same format. “In this sense, we were a bit ahead of our time.”

Ranger positioned the Barley trio in similar, if more general terms. “It was a good band,” he suggested in 1981. “Stronger than any bands coming out today. Stronger, as in crazy – not knowing where we were going. We just kept going. OK, what’s next,you know?”

For Jazz en liberté, Ranger, Barley and Donato took turns as the trio’s nominal leader; they also served on occasion at l’Ermitage as the core of other bands – a Ranger quartet with Pierre Leduc in May 1968, for example, and a Donato quartet with trumpeter Alan Penfold in May 1969. The latter band’s performance was issued on CD under Donato’s name 35 years later as Jazz en liberté, along with a piece by the trio from another broadcast in the series.

More formally, the trio recorded eight compositions in January 1969 at the Studio André Perry in Brossard, across the Champlain Bridge from downtown Montreal. Barley was responsible for five of the themes, Ranger for one – Showbar – and Donato for one. The eighth was George Gershwin’s Liza.

Ranger later claimed that he stopped writing once he met Barley. “I started to change things up. I just felt like not working so hard anymore, not writing all day. So I just stopped – and started playing drums again.”

Indeed, Showbar, if only by its title, harked back to an earlier period in his career; like another Ranger composition in the trio’s repertoire, Challenge, from 1963, it is a rather sly piece, just a vaguely sinister, eight-bar melody thrice repeated, the second time modulated a half step up.

In any event, it was – no less than Barley’s Ready by Three, Mystery, Loneliness (or Oneliness), Tri-Tonality (or Try Tonality) and Hazel, Donato’s Aimé and even Gershwin’s Liza – of rather incidental consequence, so widely did the three musicians range from the skeletal structure that it implied and the motifs that it offered for further development.

Barley, Donato and Ranger improvised together in a way that was open rather than free, at least in the sense that “free” has been understood in the context of avant-garde jazz. Their explorations were rhythmically grounded but melodically impulsive, their interaction both suggestible and immediately responsive. Barley’s exuberance as a tenor saxophonist and – on Aimé and especially Mystery – as a bass clarinetist, set the temper of the music; Ranger, very much in his element, responded in kind, his small drums tuned tight – hard, unyielding surfaces sharply struck – and his cymbals brash. He swung fiercely or not at all, playing tension against release with crescendos that exploded in a clatter of sound, as though his drum set had collapsed beneath him with a shudder and a crash.

It was heady stuff for Canada in 1969, had Canada only known. The recording, more than sufficient in length for an LP, was never issued.

© 2017 Mark Miller

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