Black Music History @ Toronto’s St Lawrence Hall

On a freezing February Thursday night, my 10 year old son and I braved pelting rain & ice pellets to venture out and take in “Tuning Up” a Toronto Black History month event at the historic St Lawrence Hall. Seasoned vocalist Ada Lee, drummer Archie Alleyne,  blues guitar artist Brooke Blackburn and songstress Saidah Baba Talibah chatted with music journalist Errol Nazareth. It was an exploration of challenges, experiences,  honour and  the due of being a Black musicians in Toronto over the past 60 years.

Errol Nazareth  hosts an early morning music talk show on CBC. He keeps a good pulse on a wide swath of local and international musicians, so black and white photo’s from the CBC archive were a fitting introduction for the evening. Nazareth lead the conversation with the  octogenarian’s and asked the pointed question “What was it like being black musicians in Toronto 60 years ago?”

Ada Lee was born 1931  and started out her early career singing for local Ohio bands with Count Basie and Lionel Hampton.  Ada moved to Canada in the 60’s and spoke of a getting  lots of gigs which she attributed to her good networks and popularity. Strangely enough she could not recall any incidents of a racial nature.  I was a little disappointed that Nazareth did not delve a litttle deeper into Ada’s experiences. He took the opportunity to segway the conversation over to  Archie. His view of the  era was quite different.

Archie experienced racism throughout his early career and spoke of it quite honestly.  He felt supported by the musician’s union at the time, which helped him tackle event managers who did not want to book Black musicians. Alleyne, a self taught drummer  has honoured the stage with  countless big name jazz musicians. In the 60’s and 70’s  he was the resident drummer at the Colonial and Parkside Taverns.  Nothing has stopped Archie to date. At 81 he continues to perform regular gigs and  gives back to jazz community through The Archie Alleyne Scholarship Fund music series “Syncopation”. In 2012 I attended the second edition of  Syncopation; The Journey Continues”  an elegant  musical  tribute  backdropped against a  collection of black and white  scenes  of black musicians and the taverns they played when musicians used to get payed properly for performance.

Progressing to the present  Errol switched the conversation to the young bloods of the panel,  Saidah and Brook.  Saidah Baba Talibah is a  beautiful highly talented songwriter, singer, musician and not to mention the mighty  Salome Bey’s  is her mother. Saidah does not fit the stereotypical expectations of most audiences, for starters the Islamic name and her Afro-punk -style. She spoke poetical of her name and the reaction it can bring about in people. Limited perspective  and audacity have prevented her from getting booked . Imagine some have gone so far and even asked her to change it. Saidah has strong musical  experience and genetics  in the Toronto Black music scene.  “Should be easy right?” Wrong

Brooke Blackburn is a fine lookin’ singing’ and playin’ blues guitarist man.  I am pretty sure I lusted over him or years while eating Pad Thai at the Bamboo.  Steeped in the family tradition of the Black music happenings of Toronto, Brook is the son of Bobby Blackburn. His Dad used to lead the band at the local landmark  club. The Zanibar was a jazz  bar not strip club back t the 60’s and 70’s.  Brook spoke of a perplexing experience in Nova Scotia, where he felt like segregation is alive and well. The event planner loved him and the band, but the club owners were concerned because the music attracted to many black people in the audience. I was riveted by the conversation of the musicians from my generation.  The Toronto music scene has diminished and  grown and at the same time. Gone are the paying gigs and clubs of the past, but technology brings these musicians a global audience.

The evening was embellished  and punctuated with performances of talented keyboard player Micheal Shand,   Ada’s scat, Saidah’s impassioned song of her mother’ dementia and of course Brook whose  guitar  & voice continue to spark me. The cerebral nature of the conversation and music  had Elly drooling and snoring early in the evening. I woke him when it it was time to go.

Elly and I stand protected in the Neo Renaissance doorway.  Built in the 1850’s The St Lawrence Hall was once the main public, political and performance space in Toronto. In the 1850’s the Hall hosted the regular meeting of the Anti-Slavery Society. The North American  Coloured Freemen considered Toronto to be a safe place for anti slavery activities and held a historic convention at the hall in the fall of 1851. A appropriate location for captivating conversation & stories of colour barriers past and presents. Impatiently we wait, watching the gas lights flicker in Victorian lamps at the corner. The 504 King Streetcar can take us home but tonight I flag a cab.

P.S  Black History Note

Cy Mclean’s band was  the first black  band to play on Yonge St. The lot where Colonial Tavern used to stand is now empty.