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Free Jazz in a Free City

A colourful illustration featuring a music group with several individuals playing different instruments.

The Artists’ Jazz Band reflected the dynamic arts scene of Toronto in the 1960s. Created by a collective of famous painters who experimented in free jazz, the Artists’ Jazz Band is a case study in how the city went from “Toronto the Good” to “Toronto the Cool.”

 

Explore the legacy of the Artists' Jazz Band

This story was researched and written by Emerging Historian Kyle Resendes (2023) and made possible by the generous support of our Tours Program Presenting Sponsor, TD Bank and The Ready Commitment.

Last updated: November 9, 2023

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What was the Artists' Jazz Band?


The Artists' Jazz Band was a free jazz collective created by some of the most famous abstract artists working in Toronto in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Artists’ Jazz Band (AJB) was formed in 1962 by a group of Toronto abstract expressionist painters who shared an interest in improvised music. Its founding members included Gordon Rayner, Robert Markle, and Graham Coughtry. Most members were self-taught musicians which marked their interest in jazz as an abstract art form, rather than a display of virtuosity. Choosing to perform in private lofts and select art galleries throughout downtown Toronto, the AJB were a close-knit group at the heart of the Toronto artistic community.

The dynamic interplay between self-taught and experienced musicians placed the AJB on the border between an amateur jam band and an innovative jazz collective. Although the band’s work is known today by a select group of jazz musicians and abstract art enthusiasts, their work serves as a lens into the free-expression attitude of the 1960s.

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Artists Jazz Band (L to R) Gordon Rayner, Robert Markle, Terry Forster, Bill Smith, Graham Coughtry, David Lee, David Prentice. Artsake, Toronto, 1980. Image by John Oslansky.
“

[Listening to the AJB's music] you finally get to cast off all of the expectations that bind you from one musical decision to another.

”

Heidi Savoie, Jazz Pianist
Interview, September 2023

Before rock and roll hit the Yonge Street Strip, Toronto's jazz clubs were a dominant part of the city's music scene.

In the mid-20th century, Toronto’s jazz scene represented a combination of swing, bebop, and dixieland styles. In focusing on free jazz, the AJB were oppositional to most of Toronto’s jazz scene. However, their work was inspired by a legacy of Toronto abstract artists and jazz musicians who focused on free improvisation.

The AJB was also remarkable in its ability to attract notable Toronto artists; its membership was a revolving door of Toronto artists, including David Lee, Stuart Broomer, Bill Smith, and Michael Snow. Snow was a pioneer of abstract art and is often remembered for his public works such as Walking Woman (1961), Flight Stop (1971), and The Audience (1989). But Snow was also an accomplished jazz pianist who contributed his talents to the AJB.


Jazz in Mid-Century Toronto


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Gallery installation of Michael Snow's "Walking Woman", 1964. Image by Michael Lambeth. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.
“

When listening it's interesting to pay attention to who decides to repeat a motif or who decides to take a more thorough-composed approach ... There is no traditional drum groove, but rather a tornado of cymbal splashes, rolls, and reactions to the horn player’s sheets of sound.

”

Andrew Marzotto, Jazz Guitarist, talking about the AJB
Interview, September 2023

While other Canadian musicians found fame as part of Toronto's emergent music scene, the AJB chose to play in private.

During the 1960s, Toronto became a thriving cosmopolitan city. Bob Dylan discovered The Band on Yonge Street while Joni Mitchell performed a few blocks north at Steele’s Tavern. Toronto was becoming an artistic hotspot. Until then, Toronto was known as a polite and mild-mannered city known as “Toronto the Good”. However, the Artists’ Jazz Band were an example of the 1960s cultural revolution that redefined the city as “Toronto the Cool.”

The band exclusively played in private sessions or within local art spaces such as the Isaacs Gallery (832 Yonge Street) and A Space Gallery (85 St. Nicholas Street). According to Bill Smith, the band also occasionally played in drummer Gordon Rayner’s loft at College and Spadina. Rayner’s loft functioned primarily as an art studio, but the band would join him there for weekly sessions after visiting local pubs such as Grossman’s Tavern, playing late into the night. These private jam sessions could include improvised music, poetry, dixieland jazz numbers and everything in between.

Journalist Peter Goddard has described the ‘sheer bravado’ of experimental groups like the Artists’ Jazz Band as part of the “Toronto Swagger.” According to Goddard and others, Toronto’s artistic culture was more experimental than that of New York or Paris. Playing with the AJB meant you were part of an exclusive group of high-profile painters who performed outside the mainstream.

Cowboy and Indian (1972), Don Owen, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

 This film focuses on Gordon Rayner as a working Toronto artist and member of the Artists’ Jazz Band. Skip to 37 minutes to watch the Artists’ Jazz Band play in Rayner’s private studio.

 


The 1960s in Toronto


“

[Toronto] is the only place that provides the kind of stimulation and environment I need for my work. I get all my ideas from the interaction and excitement.

”

Graham Coughtry, Artists' Jazz Band member
Toronto Star, 4 March 1967

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A concert poster for the Artists’ Jazz Band at Le Hibou, Ottawa, early 1960s.
“

The whole experience is kind of an exercise for both musician and listener in mindfulness ... where the musical moment was more important than the destination ... I wish I could go back in time and be in that house jamming with these guys.

”

Tom King, Jazz Pianist
Interview, September 2023


The Roots of Jazz


The Artists’ Jazz band didn’t create free jazz, but they studied the greats.

The origins of jazz often is traced to African-American musicians playing in the United States in the mid-19th century. In the Canadian sphere, legendary musicians such as Eleanor Collins, Salome Bey, and Oscar Peterson made significant contributions to jazz, and represented Canada’s jazz scene on the international stage in the early to mid-twentieth century.

It is important to acknowledge the Artists’ Jazz Band was not a diverse band; however, its members often acknowledged the important legacy of Black jazz musicians. For Bill Smith in particular, the groundbreaking music of alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman (1930-2015) as well as tenor and soprano saxophonist Albert Ayler (1936-1970) inspired the AJB to explore the limits of free jazz as a musical genre.

The Artists’ Jazz band were not the inventors nor pioneers of free improvisation, yet they performed as allies to historically Black music, during a time of increased diversity in Toronto. 

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The Artists' Jazz Band Pose, Canadian Art Magazine, 1965. Image by John Reeves.
“

The music resists definition and approval. This was the music of that time and it led to some much-needed resistance from normalcy.

”

John Testar, Jazz Guitarist
Interview, September 2023

The Artists' Jazz Band translated their abstract art into abstract music.

Unlike the jazz styles seen in the work of Ella Fitzgerald or Miles Davis, which requires an extensive background in theory and technique, improvisational music calls for an immediate outward expression of musicians. According to AJB member Nobuo Kubota, “We couldn’t have read a note of music to save our lives.” In this sense, it’s best to see the AJB not as a traditional band, but instead as a group of abstract visual artists who occasionally traded their brushes for instruments.

The AJB was unique in their ability to weave visual art references and musical cues in their performances. According to AJB member David Lee, Toronto’s Painters Eleven laid the groundwork for modern expressionist art in Toronto. Formed in the early 1950s, the group was among the first to break the mold of Toronto’s then-conservative art world. Many in the artistic circle went on to directly mentor AJB members in abstract art and, indirectly, free jazz. Trading music theory for artistic expression, the AJB challenged listeners to link their music with the broader abstract art movement in Toronto. 

According to Toronto musicologist Mike Daley, AJB shows were more performance art than musical entertainment. The AJB performed in downtown art galleries such as Isaacs Art Gallery, The Music Gallery, and A Space Gallery, spaces that also had encouraged the modernist and abstract artistic movements in Toronto. Musicologists agree these were the only places where improvisational groups such as the AJB could perform, playing for audiences interested in their unique performative art style. 

Off the Wall (1981), Derek May, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

This film features the Artists’ Jazz  Band performing at Art’s Sake. Skip to 29 minutes to watch a rare recording of their performance.


Painting Jazz Music


“

[The band was] committed to building art from the ground up when they painted - it was a logical step to do the same thing when they played music.

”

David Lee, member of the Artists' Jazz Band
"'We Can Draw!': Toronto Improvisation, Abstract Expressionism, and the Artists’ Jazz Band" Vol. 11 No. 1-2 (2016): Improvisation and Global Sites of Difference


Why does the AJB Matter?


The Artists' Jazz Band offers us a window into the Toronto of the 1960s.

 During the 1960s Toronto underwent a rapid transformation in population and politics, becoming a cultural hotspot with its own identity.

The rise of jazz music in Canada, alongside the contributions made by Toronto abstract artists such as Painters Eleven and African-American musicians, paved the way for the Artists’ Jazz Band to explore their creativity. The Artists’ Jazz Band did not revolutionize or define jazz in Toronto; however, they did challenge audiences to experience improvised music in a new setting. The Artists’ Jazz Band embodied the zeitgeist of the 1960s, a period of experimentation and challenging norms. They not only pushed the boundaries of jazz but also contributed to the broader cultural renaissance of Toronto during this era. 

The Artists’ Jazz Band is one way for us to understand what life and art in Toronto during the 1960s may have been like: free jazz in a free city.

References and Further Resources

Goddard, Peter. “Remembering Toronto’s 1960s Spadina Art Scene” Canadian Art features (July, 2014) https://canadianart.ca/features/remembering-spadina/ (accessed September 1, 2023).

Lee, David. “We Can Draw!: Toronto Improvisation, Abstract Expressionism, and the Artists’ Jazz Band” Critical Studies in Improvisation 11, (July 2017).

Miller, Mark. Jazz in Canada: Fourteen Lives (University of Toronto Press, 1982).

Miller, Mark. The Miller Companion to Jazz in Canada (The Mercury Press, 2001).

Thomas, Ralph. “One man the changes may really hurt: the artist” Toronto Star, 4 March 1967, 27.

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