Brownstein: Oliver Jones set to talk, not play, jazz at art exhibit

“It’s great to see the city come to life during the jazz festival. Even if I don’t play, I want to be part of it. »

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Oliver Jones is convinced he put his playing days behind him. He insists he will speak, not play, about jazz on Wednesday at 1 p.m. at the Arts at the Cathedral exhibit at Christ Church Cathedral.

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“I’m about to turn 88. Hard to play ’88’ (piano) at 88,” Jones cracks as he sits in the cathedral pews. “I have been retired for three and a half years. But with the jazz festival in full swing, I will talk about the connection between jazz and spirituality.

Yes, but dozens of rows at the cathedral are a seasoned Yamaha that needs a partner. Can his magnetic forces bring Jones back to the piano once again?

Uh-huh.

In what is meant to be simply a photo shoot turns into a brief but riveting concert with Jones once again transfixed, beaming and returning to his former form. He receives an enthusiastic ovation from the few spectators present. The body may be somewhat broken and bent in places, but the hands are still so soft and the spirit is still there.

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Truly a Montreal moment.

Oliver Jones at Christ Church Cathedral with artist Noelle Lemos and Norman Cornett, curator of The Arts at the Cathedral exhibition which runs until July 10.
Oliver Jones at Christ Church Cathedral with artist Noelle Lemos and Norman Cornett, curator of The Arts at the Cathedral exhibition which runs until July 10. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

It’s probably no coincidence that the tune Jones so expertly tickled on the ivories is Oscar Peterson’s Hymn to Freedom.

Jones’ most memorable night of all time was at the 2004 Jazz Festival, when he reunited with his childhood neighbor, mentor and St. Henri hero, Peterson, to play Hymn to Freedom. as well as Just Friends. It was one of Peterson’s last performances, while he was ill.

“It was like a dream come true,” Jones recalled, flashing his trademark sheepish smile. “I will never forget that night. Without Oscar and his sister and my teacher Daisy (Peterson Sweeney), I would never have achieved the success I have had. They believed in me and pushed me to places I never imagined I would go.

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But it has. There are few Montrealers more beloved than Jones. Retired or not, Jones is still considered by many to be Canada’s finest jazz pianist. With two dozen albums to her credit and two huge murals of her image overlooking her urban roots, Jones has won numerous Juno and Felix awards. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada and Knight of the Order of Quebec and recipient of the Governor General’s Award for the Performing Arts and the Oscar Peterson Prize. In tribute to him, the jazz festival will award its Oliver-Jones Prize to drummer Christina Beaudry-Càrdenas on Saturday at 6 p.m. as part of the Le Studio TD Entry Free series.

It all explains why Jones was so eager to take part in the Arts at the Cathedral exhibition, which features paintings by 10 artists as well as occasional chats with Ranee Lee and Jones and concerts with pianist Matt Herskowitz – which performs Wednesday at 16 hours. Organized by professor and jazz enthusiast Norman Cornett, the exhibition is free and lasts until Sunday.

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“The idea behind it was a need to celebrate after enduring the pandemic for two years, to go out and party,” Cornett explains.

“It’s great to see the city come to life during the jazz festival,” says Jones. “I have to remind myself again that I am retired. But even if I don’t play, I want to be part of it.

“I'm going to talk about the connection between jazz and spirituality,” says Oliver Jones about his participation in the Arts at the Cathedral exhibition.
“I’m going to talk about the connection between jazz and spirituality,” says Oliver Jones about his participation in the Arts at the Cathedral exhibition. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

Jones notes that his piano is mostly part of the furnishings in his Côte-Saint-Luc apartment.

“I go through it every day. I will open it. Hit a note. Tell my wife Monique (Leclair) that I played.

It must be a hard habit to shake. He has been mostly joined on keyboards and pedals since he was 5 years old.

“The Peterson family has been such a big influence on me. Daisy brought me the world with all the classical studies I did with her. And among my earliest memories was listening to Oscar – who lived only 12 doors away from me – in the back row of the Union United Church. The power and size of his hands was something. And I fell in love with jazz.

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“He was always so generous with his time with me. The only time he got mad at me was after he wrote new material for me to play, but I hadn’t practiced it. During this period, I thought I was an athlete and had a big athletic competition. I won four or five medals, but that didn’t impress Oscar. He told me to decide what I wanted to do. So I did.

This brings us to the 2004 Jazz Festival, which marked the first time they performed together on stage.

“I had played with Dave Brubeck and some of the greatest musicians in the world, but not with Oscar. No repetition either. I hadn’t touched a piano for four or five years. I had health problems. But (jazz-fest boss) André Ménard persisted in telling me that I had to do this for the 25the anniversary. I said I was retired, but he suspected I might come back. Then he offered me to play with Oscar in the second part of the show. I could not resist. I have never heard louder applause than that evening. This memory will stay with me for the rest of my life.

“Some say they can hear a bit of Oscar coming out of me and I’m very grateful for that. People might think I don’t want to be considered playing Oscar, but I say I’m thrilled. was the greatest pianist in the world.

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