Oliver Jones has played with many of the greats and for a host of world leaders, VIPs and thousands of fans around the world. Now this octogenarian jazz legend says he wants to help promote the abundance of musical talent from his native Canada.
Such is his status as a jazz pianist, organist, composer and arranger, that when the soft voice of Oliver Jones speaks, everyone else tends to go quiet and listen. Jones talks with a cool, unforced authority and like a lot of great musicians, and especially jazz players, there’s a natural humility about him. He admits he’s, “very lazy”, and that he, “doesn’t practice a lot unless he has a classical concert coming up”. When he talks about his close friend, collaborator and mentor, Oscar Peterson, whose parents, like his own, were also from the West Indies, he divulges, “Maybe that’s where we got the discipline ( to practice and improve) from.” Anyone who has achieved as much as he has in music – on and off stage – can hardly be called lazy!
Backstage in Haiti
Jones gave Kreol an audience after performing at the 2016 Festival International de Jazz de Port-Au-Prince in Haiti. The legend was happy to kick back and reflect on, “76 years of touring and being on stage”. He actually retired 15 years ago, but was talked into returning to the stage, although you get the feeling he didn’t need too much persuading. “My old friend Oscar Peterson said that jazz musicians never retire,” he grinned. Nevertheless, after such a lengthy career and following heart surgery in 2015, Oliver admits that, “Keeping up is getting harder.” Not that giving up touring means retiring as such, because he says he, “Still has plans”, which in his case means promoting a host of young, talented Canadian jazz players and musicians.
He intends to make this new role his own, and is similar to an official one he had for a number of years, namely “Jazz Ambassador for Canada”. This involved frequent trips abroad in countries as widespread as South Korea, Japan, South Africa and China, and also playing for any special guests who happened to be visiting Canada. He reveals, “I’ve played for the Queen when she came over from the UK, Presidents and Prime ministers from all over, but the greatest honour was playing for South African President, Nelson Mandela.”
Jones has been playing piano since he was five years-old, starting at Little Burgundy’s Union United Church, in his native Montreal. Soon after, he began taking lessons with Oscar Peterson’s sister, Daisy, (the Petersons lived in the same street) and although this was classical training, the rest, as they say, is jazz history. He’s clearly proud of his Canadian roots, but does he think his Caribbean heritage has influenced his music and if so, how? “Both my parents were from Barbados, so from an early age I was familiar with certain types of music, Calypso, Latin, etc. I also worked as a musical conductor in Puerto Rico for 15 years. I was classically trained, but I’ve been exposed to all kinds of music and seen how the world of jazz is really special, and how it is often a marriage between jazz and some of the musical culture of the country where it’s played.”
Jones says he finds that he gets inspired by every country he travels too, but when asked if any one in particular stands out, his answer comes as a bit of a surprise, at least in terms of jazz heritage. “New Zealand probably impressed me the most,” says Oliver, “It was the first country I played outside of the US and I went straight from the airport to the stage and started to play. That was the first time I’d met the other two musicians I was performing with, but we played as if we’d been playing together for years. I realized then that jazz really is a universal language.”
Challenges and collaborations
Asked about some of the challenges he’s faced in such a long career, spread over so many different countries, Oliver identified the travelling involved as a touring jazz musician was probably one of the hardest aspects. “At one stage, I was doing about 300,000 miles a year, for 12-13 years, so it’s pretty hard to keep going like that.”
After travelling and playing with so many other musicians, it’s not easy for him to list his favourites, but there have been a few collaborations that have been, “kind of special”. Pushed and he opens up, “Playing with Dave Brubeck was special but to play with Oscar Peterson was really something – he was the world’s greatest jazz pianist. I’d grown up watching how he conducted himself and there’s no doubt that he left a big legacy for us all to follow.”
The future for Jazz?
When asked where he feels Jazz is heading Jones summarises his view with, “I’m excited to see jazz festivals in countries around the world and how the culture of different countries finds its way into the music. It’s always changing and to grow, jazz has to continue to change.”
Jones particularly enjoys hearing young musicians and says, “It’s always a pleasure to listen to older musicians playing with younger ones. The world of jazz is really special.” Jones wants to spread the word and music about the talented jazz players in Canada, “In many ways, Canadians are a bit too polite. We wait to be asked. Maybe, we need some more of the American aggressiveness!”