Michael Snow in the Moment: The Icon as Improviser
David Neil Lee


Michael Snow, Larry Dubin; Western Front, Vancouver 1976


When the multidisciplinary Canadian artist Michael Snow passed away on January 5, 2023, any and all media consensus agreed that the man was a genius, certainly “a giant in the art world,” inarguably one of a kind.

At 94, Snow had been a public figure long enough to be eulogized years before his actual passing. Filmmaker Bruce Elder, in a 2009 essay, pronounced Snow “the most important artist Canada has produce[d].” A few years later, journalist Emily Landau proclaimed that Snow “single-handedly transformed Toronto from a Group of Seven-worshipping, landscape-loving hayseed backwater into a hub of high-stakes, high-concept art.” (1)

These days, the contemporary arts are more of a non-zero-sum game, where the fact that, for example, an abstract artist is good doesn’t mean that a representationalist is bad, or unimportant. Moreover, concerns about modernism have been supplanted by concerns about modernity; that is, by a questioning of the European-based standards and power structures by which artists have been measured, and have measured themselves. Once those values start to be questioned, acclamations of genius start to look less like a measured accumulation of evidence, and more like a relaxation of the usual critical faculties.

The Snow eulogies, however, have in common the romantic (if old-fashioned) notion of the artist as visionary, as auteur, as the one man (romantic genius is a highly patriarchal trope and admits women, if at all, only on a case-by-case basis) who works alone, disdaining society and its material things, to fulfill a singular, personal, near-mystical vision. In contemporary artistic discourse, this is a notion espoused by practically no one; it is in fact, actively resisted amid a wave of flourishing perspectives in which art-making is depicted as a communal act (although it’s a mistake to lean too far one way or the other with either theory – certainly those who produce art can cite enough instances when they’ve been writing a book, devising a performance, composing music, finishing an artwork, when they’ve looked around and thought, “is there anyone here who can help me with this?” and found that more often than not, the answer is a clear no).

The genius trope seems to bounce back, however, with the passing of an iconic figure; there’s a thin and highly permeable barrier between the ritual deproblematizing of the recently deceased and the ceasefire of critical analysis that is called when the time comes for the genius label to be applied. (2)

There is, unfortunately, no empirical way to measure or even detect Genius; we can’t measure midi-chlorian counts like in a Star Wars movie or, as in John Carpenter’s The Thing, tie up a bunch of jazz musicians with blood samples and a flamethrower to find out who in the room is really a genius. (3) That said, Snow’s career was certainly long enough, and sufficiently packed with artistic milestones, each one different from the last, to certify that if every artist is one of a kind, Snow was even more so.

Genius, however, is only one pole of an artist’s reputation. An artist might successfully conceive and carry out distinct and innovative artworks, but the cultural capital those works accrue can quickly lose its value unless the work can be seen to have roots in some kind of recognizable cultural practices or conventions; to have what might be called “authenticity.” In Snow’s case, over the decades he became, or was made, an icon through his major works in sculpture, installations and film – products of a singular point of view that could have only been hatched in private, even isolated, study and experiment – essentially, only in an artist’s studio. They are so unique that they might be considered not works of genius, but merely eccentricities, unless the artist can also prove authenticity. Snow’s proof of authenticity – acknowledged at least in passing in every eulogy – was the fact that he played music.

 


Michael Snow’s earliest surviving artwork, Jazz Band. Tempera or gouache. 1947

 

Born December 10, 1928, Snow had the advantage of a musical background; his French-Canadian mother was a skilled pianist, the family had a Heintzmann grand piano in the house, and as he entered his teens the young Snow had enough money to buy records. Soon he had developed, if not an acquaintance, an aesthetic kinship with a community of American musicians, also born 1927-1930 who, just as the dominance of big-band swing was being eroded on one side by rhythm and blues, and on the other by bebop, became fans of the earliest recorded New Orleans forms, that had been recently revived by maverick producers on indie labels, then picked up and distributed widely by the majors such as RCA Victor, Decca and Columbia.

Among many others, saxophonist Bob Wilber, pianist Dick Wellstood, and trumpeter Ruby Braff were also born in the late 1920s and like Snow, in the late 1940s, as bebop emerged as a new force in jazz, they began eagerly playing those earlier forms. In this, we might see parallels with the “folk music” revival of the 1950s and, specifically in the UK later in that decade, the underground that grew up around early blues records and led to the formation of the Rolling Stones and other bands of the 1960s “British invasion.”  One of the appeals of these earlier forms was their authenticity; the notion that – unlike contemporary popular musics, saturating the culture through a huge entertainment industry that, on an unprecedented scale, was bringing music to new audiences through radio, records, and films – these older records were made by musicians playing locally, in small venues, and so were seen as essentially uncommercial, art for art’s sake.(4)

At the end of the 1940s, as part of the Jazz Society of Toronto, the young Snow took part in “concerts” where members played records and commented on the music and musicians; his notes for one of these events burst with enthusiasm for pre-swing musicians such as Jimmy Yancey, Wingy Manone, Jelly Roll Morton, and Bertha Chippie Hill (Music/Sound 16).

Later in life Snow wrote, “I was on the side of the ‘old’ jazz (later I wasn’t)” (Collected Writings 5). Regardless of how those tastes might be perceived historically, it was through the music’s New Orleans and pre-swing forms, and the community that he found through it, that the young Snow first discovered contemporary literature and visual arts. When he graduated from the Ontario College of Art in 1952 and began to rough out a career as an artist, it also gave him a way to make some kind of living playing music in Toronto, something that couldn’t have happened if his tastes had been more contemporary and he’d played bebop – a style that Snow took some time to warm up to.(5) In 1949 he visited New York City:

 

I walked into a club on 52nd Street and Charlie Parker was playing. It was probably the most amazing band in the world but I can remember the feeling of hysteria I felt. I just wanted to get out. It drove me crazy ... but Bebop was the music that was going through a creative stage and I was getting interested in it. (Music/Sound 60)

 

Instead, building on his love for older forms of jazz, after graduating from the Ontario College of Art in 1952:

 

… for about 3 years I mostly made my living from music and played with many fine musicians such as Cootie Williams, Buck Clayton, Jimmy Rushing, George Lewis. In the summers of ’48, ’49, ’50 for a week or two I and some of my Toronto jazz friends went to Chicago where we jammed here and there, once with the great Pee Wee Russell and went to some parties at the home of the equally great blues-boogie pianist Jimmy Yancey. He, Albert Ammons, Cripple Clarence Lofton, others and myself played at these parties and Yancey, very impressed proclaimed me his “pupil” and taught me some of his stuff. This may not impress you but it meant a lot to me then and now. (6)

 

Reviewing the music Snow made over those years, it can seem that he transitioned from early New Orleans forms of jazz to post-Coleman improvisation with no in-between phase. This, however, is not at all the case: a 1962 Snow notebook entry includes the chords for Thelonious Monk’s Ask Me Now, and the 1964 Don Owen documentary Toronto Jazz includes a segment with trombonist Alf Jones’ quartet that heavily features Snow playing piano in a modern style that helps to illuminate why a later list of his influences includes Bud Powell, Red Garland, and Duke Jordan. (7)

However, two factors worked to radically change Snow’s approach to music. The first began with late-night jam sessions in the studios of Toronto’s young abstract expressionists. By and large these sessions didn’t include working musicians. Rather, the artists themselves, jazz fans every one of them, were buying instruments, taking lessons, and, not worrying whether they were ready for prime time, enacting performances of their favourite music, the music of the moment, the music that so heavily informed the improvisation and spontaneity of their experiments with painting and sculpture. Most often taking place at the Spadina Avenue studio of Gordon Rayner (drums), the group included Nobua Kubota (alto saxophone), Graham Coughtry (trombone), Robert Markle (tenor saxophone, piano), Richard Gorman (acoustic bass) and Dennis Burton (saxophone). By the time that these artists announced themselves in public as The Artists Jazz Band (AJB), Snow had left for New York City, but he played with them on his visits home (if there was no piano, he had taken up the trumpet).

The second of these two crucial factors: in 1962 Snow and his wife, artist Joyce Wieland, moved to New York City.

Manhattan became central to Snow’s career. During his tenure there, he made some of his landmark pieces, such as the Walking Woman sculptures (based on the silhouette of pianist/composer Carla Bley), as well as the films that became central to his oeuvre and to his international reputation. The reputation itself also began in New York: working in what was newly recognized as the western world’s centre of contemporary art (rather than Paris, which had dominated the western art world until World War Two), Snow garnered high-profile media attention that he would never have gotten if he’d stayed in Toronto.

New York also brought him face-to-face with contemporary developments in music.

Although he arrived in the Big Apple having decided to focus on painting and film, he and Wieland couldn’t avoid the city’s many points of contact between the visual arts and the new jazz scenes. First off, they rented a loft from bassist Steve Swallow, and they soon formed friendships with another former Dixieland musician who lived across the street, Roswell Rudd.

Roswell was broke and wanted to sell his piano. I bought it for 50 bucks and moved it into my loft. These guys weren’t playing in public because they were feared and hated, so I made the loft available to them. We started to have sessions, a lot of them. Everybody played at my place – the Jazz Composers Orchestra started there. I didn’t work with them, though. I didn’t know how to play that way. I would only try to play after a session was over. (Snow, Music/Sound 64).

If at first, the music baffled him, Snow began to figure out how to play that way. Back in Toronto, he would join his friends in the Artists’ Jazz Band – if only, for purely social reasons since, musically “... the AJB seemed pretty silly ...” (Wainwright 77); for a number of years, any rumours that the AJB were a band where Michael Snow was the only one who could “really play” were liable to be spread by Snow himself. However, as he spent more time in New York, becoming familiar with the burgeoning free jazz scene, on his visits home Snow found himself taking the Toronto players more seriously. After all, in New York, Snow was surrounded by musicians who “played fixed lines, tunes, and then they improvised ... I thought that was stupid” (Music/Sound 65):

 

I sometimes felt that these musicians weren’t necessarily developing what seemed to be the most amazing implications of their music. They often composed tunes that would, by and large, be played first, followed by solos and repeated to close … but they only occasionally trusted in collective improvisation in which the thematic material is generated then and there by the player-composers. (Collected Writings 188)

 

Snow’s attitude toward the AJB began to change. He realized they were not necessarily as primitive as he’d first thought: “You have to learn how to improvise in that free way” (Music/Sound 64-5).

In fact, the musical milestone of Snow’s years in New York was not music he played, but music he commissioned: his 1965 film New York Eye and Ear Control, famous for its soundtrack (as well as brief appearances) by Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, John Tchicai, Roswell Rudd, Gary Peacock, and Sunny Murray. “When I chose the band to make the soundtrack,” Snow writes, “I specifically asked them not to play compositions, just to play free” (ibid., 65). Toronto saxophonist and multimedia artist John Oswald brings an intriguing perspective:

 

The musicians that were involved in the New York Eye and Ear Control sessions – Albert Ayler, et cetera, were all surprised when Mike [Snow] said no head, just play ... he said it just seemed kind of like a novel idea, but a doable idea, to them. So I think the seeds for that idea of, total free jazz let’s call it, were perhaps planted by a Canadian influence. (Oswald, Martinez 2014)

 

Each in his own way, the members of the New York Eye and Ear Control group were on their way to becoming icons of the decade’s so-called “free jazz,” so it’s hard not to find provocative their alleged reluctance to play without, if not “written music” per se, any kind of consensual compositional premise, since freedom was allegedly the innovation their generation was bringing to music. Actually what “free jazz” had really opened up was the range of useable compositional premises, or materials; its creators also questioned the necessity of defining their compositional materials in terms of harmonic progressions, and then repeating those progressions unvaryingly for the duration of a performance.

Among certain critics, and to an extent among listeners, freedom, however, had always been one of the standards by which the music had been judged. If solos by say, Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, or Coleman Hawkins do not sound “free” by contemporary standards, they undeniably build on their composed context in ingenious ways (and then one day, if you have spent enough time with the song forms of the era, they sound amazingly free once again).

Freedom, however, is a characteristic even more ineffable than “genius.” Like genius, freedom can’t be precisely measured, all the more so because freedom, unlike genius, is seldom cited as a presence. Instead, it’s generally discussed as an absence – though whether what’s behind its absence is laziness or neglect, tremendous chutzpah, a spirit of adventure, or a deep and personal artistic vision can be a matter of opinion. In the post-war years however, as abstract expressionism became a major presence in the visual arts, when writers such as Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs published their major works, and when the growing “conformity” of the USA’s growing media culture and military/industrial complex was seen as a major barrier to artistic expression, the need for “freedom” went largely unquestioned – certainly when in the hands of Black musicians and their collaborators, it could be conflated with the ferocious battles being waged for Black American civil rights.

Like genius, freedom became a trope placed just beyond the limits of critical thinking and analysis. Unlike genius, however, freedom has a hard time gaining any weight or inertia in the art world; after all, if it’s an absence, it cannot accrue cultural capital. As George McKay has written of the British music scene:

 

Apart from free improvisation, is there a single other modern cultural realm that offers absolutely no possibility of significant reward for its most accomplished practitioners – ever? Experimental classical music, contemporary dance, the postmodern novel, conceptual visual art – all have their (relatively) powerful cultural champions, some or many financial resources or patronage, recognition and validation, some sort of career structure or opportunity. Only in improvised music (in Britain) do you start at the bottom, as it were, and stay there – even when you have reached the pinnacle. (McKay, Circular 230)

 

Indeed, the surest method of gaining some kind of cultural capital as an improvising musician seems to be, ironically, to have already made a name for oneself in some other area of artistic endeavour. This peculiarity of the artistic economy became an important factor in Toronto’s nascent improvisation scene in the 1970s, when Snow returned to the city with a renewed interest in music-making. 

Whatever music Snow might have made during his decade in New York City, it has left few traces (although circa 1970 he was part of Carla Bley and Paul Haines’ monumental “Escalator Over the Hill” recording, playing trumpet in the “Original Amateur Hotel Band” along with Michael Mantler, Howard Johnson, Perry Robinson, Perry Imig, and Nancy Newton). “I got further into free music,” he wrote, “in the summers in the ‘60s when I’d come back to Toronto” (Music/Sound 68). Snow’s visual work seems to have preoccupied him, but there is no surer way to score cultural capital in Canada than to have gained US credentials, so when he and Wieland returned to Canada in 1971, both of them were able to pick up where they left off with an American lustre added to their Canadian careers.

Snow resumed playing with the Artists Jazz Band. Soon, however, improvising sessions began to be convened at York University professor Casey Sokol’s house in Rosedale, the affluent downtown enclave of Toronto old money (the neighbourhood where, aside from his New York years, Snow lived for his entire life). The musicians included Sokol on piano, recent York graduate Allan Mattes on bass, Peter Anson guitar, and Bill Smith and Greg Gallagher on saxophones. Smith invited drummer Larry Dubin into the band; Dubin in turn invited Snow, who brought in his bandmate from the Artists Jazz Band, Nobuo Kubota (Stewart 4-5).

Soon the band was undertaking public performances. Dubin was a veteran organizer of “Trust Fund gigs” in which, provided that all band members joined the Toronto branch of the musicians’ union (the American Federation of Musicians, or AFM), they could be paid union scale for performances in approved venues. Dubin had been playing Trust Fund gigs for years with his Dixieland group, The Big Muddys, and he now made the genuinely iconoclastic move of showing up with this all-improvising group, which soon became known as the Canadian Creative Music Collective (CCMC) (Smith, Rant 442).

 


Michael Snow, Bill Smith, Larry Dubin; Western Front, Vancouver 1976

 

Allan Mattes realized that the personnel of the group represented considerable cultural capital, including as it did jazz veteran Dubin, writer/photographer/publisher Smith, broadcaster Gallagher, academic Sokol, prominent abstract expressionist painters and teachers Coughtry and Kubota, and especially, Michael Snow whose New York residency – not to mention the impact of the work he had made there – had given him a unique status among Canadian artists.  Mattes put this capital to work for the band, securing government funding to open a new non-profit performing space in Toronto, the CCMC Music Gallery, carrying out an impressive bookkeeping sleight-of-hand in which the band’s dual role as the board of directors effectively made a musical ensemble, and the space it managed, into the same entity.

 

Subject Position Statement

 

In the name of full disclosure, I’ll provide a personal context; mostly because when I began to play improvised music in Toronto in the late 1970s, there were a lot of politics, so a division grew between the people I played with, and Snow and the people he played with.

Shortly after I arrived in Toronto from the west coast in 1974, I heard an early iteration of the CCMC play at the Charlie Farley Art Studio on Queen Street east of Yonge. A week or so later, I went to the Jazz and Blues Centre on Yonge Street, recognized the proprietor as one of the saxophonists I’d heard, and soon began working at the store which was run by John Norris and Bill Smith, along with Coda Magazine and Sackville Recordings at the same location. In 1975 I began attending Saturday afternoon improvising sessions at the Sandpiper, a bar on St. Clair West, where Larry Dubin, Stuart Broomer, and Michael Snow had weekly sessions with Bill on saxophone; Al Mattes and Maury Coles also played sometimes. If Snow, like any artist in his late forties, was interested in advancing his career, this dark underpopulated bar with its “cave” décor was not the place to do it. The only reason for him being there was the chance to play improvised music.

This, however, was a fractious time in Toronto’s tiny improvised music community. Norris, Smith and his wife Clomin, often with the help of poet Victor Coleman, were putting on concerts by Black artists such as Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand), Roscoe Mitchell, Don Pullen, Wadada Leo Smith, and Anthony Braxton. These concerts, of course, would be reviewed in Coda, which also consistently covered the activities of local improvisers. In 1976, however, Snow wrote a letter to Coda Magazine complaining  of its reviewers’ biases towards African American musicians, and its relative neglect of Toronto’s almost all-white improvising community.

I have to admit that, as a Canadian creator myself, I am not totally unsympathetic to every part of Snow’s argument. First, off there is the American thing; as the Canadian musician Kevin Drew, of Broken Social Scene has pointed out, “we have one of the loudest neighbors in the world,” (Ryzik). It’s a hard fact that any Canadian artist trying to reach a Canadian audience is liable to find that Canadian mass media is, rather than the solution, the problem: there’s not much space left for the work of Canadian creators once the mass media has sated its hunger to add to the glut of news about high-profile Americans.

Snow, however, chose to overlook this small magazine’s (in retrospect, enthusiastic) coverage of Canadian improvisers in order to characterize white Canadians as an abject group, marginalized in their own country by the powerful hegemony of touring African Americans and their Canadian supporters. Once he had embraced the influence of an earlier generation of Black American creators, indeed taken pride in being accepted by them as a peer; now Black musicians were the enemy. (8)

Part of this involved ideological differences between what we might call the Jazz & Blues Centre contingent, who embraced the music of the African American jazz tradition as a field of intellectual inquiry, as well as an inspiration in the ways that music could be generated through the countless permutations of “playing” on a gamut of compositional premises; and the Music Gallery who for funding reasons needed to present themselves as fundamentally Canadian, but who presented Canadian-ness as something fundamentally European and white. (9) In the same period, as the CCMC worked to establish itself as a Canadian institution, and to do so   needed a board that could be relied on for some kind of ideological consensus, Bill Smith, who was starting his own career as a composer/improviser, was asked to resign from the CCMC (along with Graham Coughtry). This naturally offended Bill, even though he was already finding the group’s music “repetition passing itself off as improvisation” (Smith, Rant 442-3).

These divisions affected my own early years as an improviser, since I began my career as a bassist primarily in the Bill Smith Ensemble. Although this gave me the invaluable opportunity to perform – not casually but in rehearsed ensembles – with Kenny Wheeler, Julius Hemphill, Gunter Christmann, Wadada Leo Smith, Joe McPhee and many others, I remained one of the few Toronto musicians who never played with Snow. (10)

 

Snow and CCMC – an autumnal triumph

 

Meanwhile, if anything legitimized the CCMC on the map of Canadian improvised music, it was Snow’s membership, and the legitimacy he offered the group, both as a certified avant garde genius, and as an authentic working jazz player. When in 1993 a conglomerate of important Canadian consecrating organizations (The Art Gallery of Ontario, the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery at Harbourfront Centre, Alfred A. Knopf / Random House Canada) put out book-sized catalogues on Snow in 1993, one volume was devoted to sculpture, film, photos, installations, and holographic work, another volume (albeit the skinnier of the two) was dedicated to his music.

This book – Music/Sound 1948-1993 – also works as a major documentation of the band itself. The title of one chapter – “History of the CCMC and of Improvised Music” – shows how skilfully the ensemble was able to enter its name as the central entity in Canadian improvised music –  aided to a great extent by the fact that, with Snow as the band’s focus, if not its leader (for all his talents, he rarely organized bands, or concerts himself) the group often came off better when it was reviewed and historicized by art critics (or in the case of this article, by the members themselves), than by writers who specialized in jazz and improvised music. The piece consists of a 1991 interview with Mattes, Kubota and Snow, who at that point were the last remaining members of CCMC, with Kubota soon to go. Owing partly to the insistence of important funding bodies such as the Ontario Arts Council, the fixed, all-male, ethnically narrow, and unchanging nature of the galley’s board, had been brought into question. The CCMC were forced to resign from the board, and a new board – “from a variety of musical backgrounds” (Stewart 47) took their seats.

 


Creative Canadian Music Collective (CCMC): Michael Snow, Paul Dutton, John Oswald, John Kamevaar;  Arraymusic, Toronto, 2015 © 2023 Mani Mazinani

 

For the time being, this looked like the end of CCMC. The ensemble’s unique symbiosis with the Music Gallery could be said to represent a successful institutionalization of Snow as an improviser, but Snow himself – possibly with a keen awareness of the points where such consecration benefitted his art, and the points where it did not – took the surprising move of reinstating the ensemble in a new form. A new CCMC emerged: Snow (piano, synthesizer) partnered with two other improvisers who had already achieved status in their own fields of artistic experimentation: sound poet Paul Dutton (vocals) and Plunderphonics founder John Oswald (alto saxophone), joined sometimes on percussion and electronics by John Kamevaar, a long-time contributor to the original CCMC lineup.

The CCMC had made inroads simply by its founding when, through the CCMC Music Gallery, it legitimized improvisation as an artistic field eligible for government and corporate support. Its lengthy tenure of twice-weekly gigs was also unprecedented in Canadian music. Nevertheless, it could be argued that the latest iteration of the group was the most impressive, given the imaginative reach, the individual personal style, and the decades-long experience each of its members brought to the group.

It is with this ensemble that in fact, I finally played with Snow, in May 2019 at Arrayspace in Toronto, at Paul Dutton’s invitation. I drove in from Hamilton. Traffic was bad so by the time I arrived with my bass and amp, there was barely time to set up and start playing, although I had no trepidations about the music. I was already familiar with playing with Oswald, as well as Dutton and Kamevaar, although I hadn’t played with either of the latter for many years.

As for Snow, he did what one hopes a fellow improviser does: he listened, and played in such a way that you knew you were heard. His keyboard work, as Arthur Bull has written, “leaned toward harmonic structure, not quite playing changes, but hinting at them.” I found him a sensitive and fluid improviser, a pleasure to play with; at the age of 91, nothing more to prove, still fully himself, still listening, in that indefinable powerful ambiguity of what is at once an embrace, and at the same time a pushing back – at once declaring this space to be mine, and ours – realizing the importance of playing, and being, in the moment.

 

Notes:

 

1: An egregiously under-researched claim that somehow overlooks famous and well-documented artists’ collectives and group enterprises – for example Painters Eleven in the 1950s, the Artists’ Jazz Band in the 1960s, General Idea through the 1970s and ‘80s – artists who actually transformed the Toronto art scene during Snow’s lifetime. They transformed it partly because of the power and persuasiveness of their work, partly because they were actually in Toronto the whole time (whereas Snow and his partner Joyce Wieland spent the decade 1962-1971 living in New York City), partly because as social entities, they worked hard and deliberately to transform the scene by organizing and enacting their own regional artistic counterculture.

2: Although in the case of the cinema’s auteur theory, which is susceptible to the mere facts that the collectivism of the film process – plus the chance factors accelerated by the on-set realities of what might happen on set with multiple cast and crew – undermines the idea that every frame is stamped with the director’s unique vision, (that said, it may be more applicable in the case of Snow, who worked with very small casts and crews).

3: To give credit where credit is due (and perhaps to further undermine auteur theories just a jot): although terrifically cinematic, Carpenter’s scene of blood-trial by fire to test for authenticity comes straight out of the 1939 short story The Thing is based on, John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There?.

4: It’s hard not to compare this groundswell of interest – a reaction, in the name of authenticity, against the musical experimentation of emerging postwar forms – with the counterculture explosion of rock music in the 1960s which, subsiding, left in its wake the previously-unknown phenomenon of white blues bands, which has become an enduring force in the music industry.

5: In fact, New Orleans aka “trad jazz” aka Dixieland proved so astoundingly viable in Toronto that an interview thirty years later found Canadian jazz virtuoso Don Thompson still disdaining the persistence of “dixieland” in the Toronto music scene. (Bill Smith and David Lee, “Don Thompson,” Coda Magazine Issue 190, 1983, pp. 4-8.)

6: Snow, Michael. Liner note, “Music for Piano, Whistling, Microphone and Tape Recorder” (Chatham Square #9 1009/1010, 1975.

7: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZjHV_NmY8o. Besides Jones on trombone, Snow plays with Terry Forster (double bass) and Larry Dubin (drums).

8: The 1970s was also a decade when emerging Black innovators sometimes benefitted from the sentimentality and essentialism of a white audience and critical field, at other times were misinterpreted and misunderstood, as Stephen Lehman discusses in “I Love You With an Asterisk.”

9: In this the CCMC Music Gallery were by no means an exception, simply adopting a perspective that was and is widespread among the art establishment at the time; as Eric Lewis points out, writing in 2019 about Canadian academic attitudes towards Black American jazz innovators, “the canonical visual art avant-garde are almost exclusively white. It is only very recently that critical and commercial attention has turned toward visual artists of color.” (Lewis fn. 33)

10: Except in one rather odd circumstance, c. 1981. Bill Smith, David Prentice and myself had been doing regular sessions in a sextet with drummer Gordon Rayner at his studio on Spadina Avenue; I played cello with Jim Jones, electric bass and Graham Coughtry, trombone. Feeling that we’d achieved a distinctive sound, we arranged a concert at the Music Gallery, intending to record it with the idea of an eventual LP, and billing it as a live recording session with “An Artists Jazz Band,” a perhaps overly deferential nod towards the (arguable) iconic status of The Artists Jazz Band, which was no longer a functioning entity, what with its most famous member Snow, and co-founder Kubota, turning their efforts to twice-weekly sessions with CCMC. Perhaps sensing the chance to be on a record, however, Kubota and Snow turned up that night, and ended up playing with the band, which resulted in an outgrowth of the uncritical sprawl that can sprout in too-large improvising ensembles; once we’d listened to the tapes, the record project was abandoned.

 

Works Cited:

 

Bull, Arthur. Email to the author, August 3, 2023.

Elder, Bruce. “A Note on Snow by Bruce Elder.” Conference paper. The New Paragone: The Cinema and Vanguard Art Movements. Ryerson University, March 2009. Online.

Landau, Emily. “The Amazing Adventures of Michael Snow: an uncensored history of Toronto’s most notorious art star.” Toronto Life, March 27, 2013. Online.

Lehman, Stephen. “I Love You With An Asterisk: African-American Experimental Music and the French Jazz Press, 1970-1980.” Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation, Vol 1, No 2 (2005). 38-53. Web.

Lewis, Eric. Intents & Purposes: Philosophy and the Aesthetics of Improvisation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press 2019.

Martinez, Mauricio. Just Play. (Video). Guelph, ON: ICASP, 2014.

McKay, George. Circular Breathing: The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain. Durham, NC: Duke UP 2005. Print.

Ryzik, Melena. “Gord Downie, Frontman for the Tragically Hip, in His Final Act.” The Globe and Mail. August 21, 2016. Web. 23 Aug. 2016.

Smith, Bill. Rant and Dawdle: The Fictional Memoir of Colston Willmott. Hornby Island, BC: Shire Editions 2010. Print.

Snow, Michael. “A Letter.” Coda 147, May 1976. 29-30. Print.

---. The Collected Writings of Michael Snow. Foreword by Louise Dompierre. Waterloo, ON: Wilfred Laurier Press 1994. Print.

---. ed. Music/Sound 1948-1993: The Michael Snow Project. Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario / The Power Plant / Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 1994. Print.

Stewart, Jesse. Toronto’s Music Gallery: History, Community, Identity. Thesis. York University, 2000. Print.

Wainwright, J.A. Blazing Figures: A Life of Robert Markle. Waterloo, ON: Wilfred Laurier UP, 2010. Print.

 

© 2023 David Neil Lee

 

> back to contents