The world was so much smaller then. Fewer people, too. I could walk down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and run into Michael Reichman from Montreal in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, for example, and that wasn’t the least bit unusual. You’d have a beer with some guy in Regina and a month later run into him in a roadside diner in Michigan.
Within fifteen minutes of showing up in Vancouver for the first time, having been dropped by my last ride at the corner of Granville and Hastings, I ran into two guys I’d last seen about a week earlier in Calgary. Hey, there’s a place we saw with LIVE JAZZ painted on the window, they said. About five or so blocks from here. I walked in the direction they pointed to and found The Espresso Coffee House. LIVE JAZZ.
Errol Garner was Neil Longdon’s musical hero. Concert by the Sea played endlessly over the sound system and when Neil sat down at the piano he emulated Errol’s style as best he could. He wasn’t bad. Not great either, but he knew it, had no pretensions and the music was fine because of that. But not great. He owned the Espresso and was one of my angels of the road, a beautiful cat. Within five minutes of showing up at his club I was enjoying one of his excellent sandwiches. Listen, he said, if you ever need a meal come by here. Just wash a few dishes and I’ll make you a meal. I hung around all afternoon and as evening fell a few people trickled in, including some musicians . . . the “live jazz”. One of these was Doug Hepburn. I just about fell over dead and cross-eyed. Doug was a singer and a regular at the Espresso.
When I was a skinny rattle-boned ten-year-old (only nine years earlier, I’m startled to realize) I briefly imagined myself a strongman, a prizefighter, an athlete. This crazed dream didn’t last long as I realized poetry would be a lot easier and wouldn’t require going to a gym. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to count on my body for anything but at ten I was a self-conscious skinny little thing and the butt of gym class jokes. Doug Hepburn was British Empire Games weightlifting champion that year and thus my hero and idol. I shook his hand that night at the Espresso, practically speechless.
I hung around and met the cats, listened to the live jazz, drank coffee, and went to find a place to spend the night. I wound up at the Burrard Street YMCA where the desk clerk gave me a room on credit. The next day I went back to the Espresso, washed a few dishes, and ate like a king. Later I ran into Bud and took him back to the Espresso where he messed with the vibes all afternoon. Never having played an instrument in his life (despite being the famous Ellington stepson) Bud discovered he was a vibraphonist. Also, being black and related to the great genius of modern music, Bud was a big hit at the Espresso. But I got to eat Neil’s fabulous sandwiches.
Neil had no illusions about the jazz at the Espresso. If you guys want to hear real jazz, he said, go to the Blue Horn. We got directions and walked the thirty or forty blocks to the Blue Horn, got there about seven. The place was far from open so we just hung out in front of the club, waiting. Fifteen minutes later the cops showed up. Neighbours across the street reported suspicious looking characters hanging out on Broadway. One of the main commercial streets in the country’s third largest metropolis — fifteen minutes just minding our own business and the cops show up. Amazing. I can tell you more about what Vancouver was like in the sixties you won’t believe. No wonder everyone here became a junkie. Anyway, for all it’s ridiculous faults the city had better cops than Montreal. They didn’t beat us up and left us to wait for the Blue Horn to open which about a half hour later it did.
Man, that was a beautiful club. I don’t remember who all played that night but Don Thompson was on bass, Terry Clarke on drums. Ron Proby played trumpet. And hanging out up front I met Al Neil. Al was the piano player on the record Kenneth Patchen Reads With Jazz (1959, Folkways FL-9718). Al actually might have played that night, I can’t remember. Hey, I said, you’re on that Patchen album! Yeah, he said back. He went on to tell me about the great poetry conference set to take place at UBC coming up that summer, the mother of all poetry conferences, that was to change my life and become one of my greatest experiences, believe it or not.
Al went on to become a lifelong friend — not my closest buddy but a friend still after forty years of being one of Canada’s foremost avant garde adventurers, musicians, poets, artists, memoirists, and rapscallions.
From Neil Longdon to Al Neil in just two days in town. Man, I was gonna have some fun here!