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The Oliver Jones Story

From his beginnings in Montreal studying with Oscar Peterson's sister Daisy Peterson Sweeny; to his Juno Award win; to becoming a major force on the world stage, this one hour documentary gives listeners an in-depth look at the man and the musician, Oliver Jones.

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Transcript of the audio documentary

I’m Ross Porter and welcome to the Oliver Jones Story.

Speaker 1: His playing is fantastic. His playing is great. His playing is heavy. That’s how you describe Oliver.

Speaker 2: There have been hundreds of great musicians, but some of them don’t communicate as well as others. Oliver is able to communicate that love and that expertise of his extremely well without hitches and I think that’s what makes him really a great musician.

Speaker 3: He is absolutely the greatest person I’ve worked with in all time. There is nobody like him. Nobody! Nobody! Bar none.

Ross Porter: Oliver Jones was born in Montreal on September 11, 1934 to immigrant parents from the Barbados. His earliest memories from his childhood in Montreal stemmed from the working class area he grew up in, a part of Montreal called Little Burgundy.

Oliver Jones: It was a wonderful area. A lot of wonderful musicians grew up in that area. It was close to the two black clubs, Rockheads Paradise and St. Michelle.

Ross Porter: The area was also close to the train tracks and many of Little Burgundy’s men found themselves employed in the rail yards. The women often worked as domestics traveling back and forth each day to some of the posher areas of Montreal to clean the houses of the middle and upper class. Little Burgundy was a neighborhood that valued family and for Oliver it was an idyllic place to grow up. A place surrounded by friends and relatives including Oliver’s cousin, drummer, Norman Marshall-Villeneuve.

Normal Marshall-Villeneuve: Little Burgundy was like a black section of St. Antoine Street, you know, way down past Mountain Street and St. Antoine was nothing but our people.

Ross Porter: Also living in the neighborhood was a man who would inspire Oliver throughout his life, pianist and jazz legend, Oscar Peterson.

Oliver Jones: From the time I was five years old. This is when he, he started a radio program that I remember we used to listen - he was 15 at that time. I think it was every Friday night and I would never miss it. And then to see him the next day, you know, and just at this time we are starting to build up an awful lot of good reputation as Canada’s best jazz pianist at the age of 15 or 16. And I think for myself and so many others in the area was a wonderful, wonderful mentor. Wonderful idol to look up to.

Ross Porter: Oscar Peterson lived about 20 doors down from Oliver. The Peterson’s were major figures in the neighborhood, Oscar with his growing reputation as a player and his sister Daisy, who taught Oscar, as well as many of the other kids in the area out to play piano.

Oliver Jones: I spent a lot of time sitting down on their doorstep listing to Oscar play as a youngster and my best friend Ronald Thomas lived right next door and so they would be trying to pull me away to go play baseball and I would say, “No, let me listen a little bit more.” And one day I just asked Daisy, “Is it possible for you to teach me how to play?” And of course at the time she always insisted that our classical studies were the most important thing, but after I had my lesson I would always sit down and play something that I was working on, “Don’t Blame Me” or “Falling in Love with Love” and all the good standards. And she would always be able to help me or sometime Oscar would come in and kind of keep an eye, listen to what was going on. So it was a wonderful, wonderful childhood for me to have all of us so close.

Norman Marshall-Villeneuve: Oliver was very dedicated, devoted to his music. He didn’t really have time to hang out. He didn’t want to hang out. He just wanted to play his music and study as much as he could with Daisy Peterson, you know. He liked to play the piano so much, if his mother wanted to get some work done around the house, she would sit him on a phone book tie him to the chair because I don’t think back then they had chairs for babies, you know, what do you call those? High chairs. But anyway, Oliver would sit there for hours and hours. When he was 5 he played his first little recital; 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 he was doing all these, at the Negro Community Center, he was doing these recitals. Oliver had a chance to play. He played a lot of things when he was young, you know, and so by the time he hit 17 he had that little steady gig at the Lantern Café. Guys had a chance to play.

Ross Porter: For Oliver playing jazz professionally was a dream come true. Something he had wanted since he first heard Oscar doing the same. However, from his family he still felt pressured to achieve more.

Oliver Jones: My father didn’t think there was any future in playing jazz music or anything else other than - he loved Bach. Religious music and classics that was what he thought I should be doing. But when I started to play in the clubs about the age of 17-18 the first person I would look out in the audience and my dad would be there, smiling and beaming. As a youngster everyone said, “Well Oscar has done it so it’s your turn now.” Not truly realizing what a monumental talent that he was. They just took it for granted that little Ollie has - they used to call me Big O and Little O that it was time for me to follow in the same footsteps.

Norman Marshall-Villeneuve: Oscar meant a lot to him and his playing ’cause both of them - I mean, if Oliver was playing you swear it was Oscar or if Oscar was playing you think it was Oliver. They were that close together when they’re playing.

Ross Porter: By the time Oliver was in his early 20s he had become a pianist for hire playing for mainstream commercial shows as well as in the orchestra pit for musicals that were happening around town and the more he dove into the commercial side of the music, the more the jazzman in him became secondary.

Oliver Jones: I don’t think I had the confidence to say that I was a jazz pianist. I was much better commercial player. And I had the wonderful opportunity to meet this young singer by the name of Ken Hamilton. I met him at Rockhead’s Paradise and he was a pop-Calypso singer and we formed a group in Montreal. We played around Montreal for about a year and a half and we had an opportunity to do a month in Miami. We jumped the opportunity. We were going to go to sunny Florida. And then after that gig went so well they offered us four months in Puerto Rico, which we eventually stayed 16 years.

Ross Porter: Their longstanding contract in Puerto Rico kept them busy for 36 weeks of the year. In his off time Oliver often played gigs in Chicago and New York as well as backing up some of the big shows in Las Vegas including one for illusionist and animal trainers Sigfried and Roy.

Norman Marshall-Villeneuve: He called me one night, he went into the dressing room, talked to the guy, and there’s this big, black panther sitting way up there on a shelf. He said he was terrified. I don’t know who he was talking to, but he said, could we go outside and do, you know, discuss what you want. Oh man!

Ross Porter: After 16 years of playing in Puerto Rico, the band’s contract expired in the late 70s freeing them to do more touring throughout North America including dates in Oliver’s hometown of Montreal.

Oliver Jones: My last gig with Kenny Hamilton. I ruptured something in my eye and I lost my right eye and I lost the sight in it from 1980. And while I was in the hospital, a good friend, the bassist Charlie Middle said to me, “Well look I know you’ve been playing these Calypso’s and all that other junk,” he said. That’s just the way Charlie would speak. “But you’ve always been a jazz pianist.” So he says, “While you’re recuperating why don’t you come and take Stan Patrick?” A very wonderful pianist who was also a school teacher. He was getting ready to go back to teach and they had a little gig in a place called Mother Tucker’s. And so I said, “Well maybe I could do a couple of nights with you.” And Charlie said, “Man! You could do the job. You could do it.” And I did two nights. The very first two nights that I was in any club to play strictly jazz. My first jazz gig was 1980. And the strange thing was people were reacting to it.
And another club opened called Tiffany’s and I had the opportunity to do five or six nights a week with Charlie there and it started to happen. People were starting to come in and listen and it took me at least four months to realize that I was finally playing the music that I wanted to play. My dream was always, perhaps, to one day have a jazz gig and it was finally happening. It really started to happen when I finally knew that people themselves was expecting to hear jazz and not anything else and that I have the total freedom to play all of these tunes that were in my mind and memory for years. It was truly an exhilarating feeling for me.

Ross Porter: Oliver and Charlie began playing at a club called Biddle’s Jazz and Ribs. It was at Biddle’s where Oliver first met the future president of Montreal’s Just in Time records, Jim West.

Jim West: I met Oliver at the Charlie Biddle’s club, the Biddle’s Jazz and Ribs. And they were playing and I wasn’t actually going there for any particular reason. I had just set up a distribution company in Canada, but I went there for dinner and the show, right? The room was packed about 150 people or maybe 125 people, whatever the capacity was, it was there, right? I couldn’t believe the demographics in there. I mean, there were, you know kids that were 10 years old and there were people that, you know, grandparents in there at 85 years old. Everybody enjoying the concert. So, when I saw that I said there’s something here that works or something that when you can cross generations like that and everyone is paying attention, everyone is looking, there’s something unique there. And so, I did go back afterwards and I did talk to Charlie and Charlie said, “Here talk to Oliver.” And so, I did talk to Oliver and it was fun. Oliver was the one I wanted to really work with in the group and we discussed doing a recording and we did that.

Oliver Jones: Over the years I had offers to record. Always to sing, two of them to just to sing and the other one was to play organ. No one ever offered who wanted to hear me play jazz and he had come to Biddle’s about three times before he spoke to me and he told me he wanted to start this jazz label. He said, he didn’t have any guarantees, but he wanted to try it.

Ross Porter: And for the first time in his 48 years Oliver decided to follow his passion full force as a jazz musician.

Jim West: Bear in mind. This is a man who was pretty secure. Speaking to him, he always had an income. He was always working, which was good, but he gave it all up when we met at Biddle’s, and said, “You know, if I’m going to make it in the jazz world, I’m going to give everything up and just go for this.” And I thought that was very brave. At that age, just to say that, you know, it was, I think a major gamble, you know? But man, I’m glad he did it! I’ve very happy he did it.

Ross Porter: But for Jim, the risk seemed mitigated because in Oliver he saw something very special.

Jim West: I always feel that a musician when they get to a certain level knows how to read a room and can read a room so well that it’s almost like second nature to walk them in. And I’m not saying they’ll play just for the room, but they won’t play for themselves only. You know, some artist have a tendency to play strictly for themselves and you know you lose the audience sometimes. Oliver can really work a room and he knows who he is playing for and he feels good about what he does and it transcends the room and that’s what makes him very special I think.

Ross Porter: His gamble paid off. The album was a resounding success. For Jim West this was the inaugural release on his new minted Just in Time record label. And he was feeling very fortunate indeed.

Jim West: Oddly enough I guess because it sold so well and did so well, the first recording that we continued. I mean, it was not just it was great and fun, I mean, sonically it wasn’t maybe the best recording ever made, you know. But it was certainly an absolutely fun recording. You could hear the atmosphere. Everyone, you know, just having a great time in the place and that worked. It worked really well.

Oliver Jones: Recording started in 83 with Jim and then every year, every nine months it was like having a baby, every nine months I would put an album or CD.

Ross Porter: From Oliver Jones’ first album as a band leader, ‘Live at Biddle’s’, here is “Take the ‘A’ Train.”


I’m Ross Porter and you’re listening to ‘The Oliver Jones Story’ an original documentary on Canada’s premier jazz station, Jazz FM 91.

Ross Porter: By the mid 80s Oliver’s reputation as a jazz musician was still limited to the Montreal scene. In Toronto, a club called Café des Copain had recently been taken over by restaurateur Lothar Lang.

Lothar Lang: Café de Copain was known for we never booked any Canadian artists because the jazz scene in Toronto at that time was, Torontonian did not want to pay any cover in clubs for so-called local artists. And one year, I think it was 1985 going back and forth to Montreal quite often because I knew a lot of friends in Montreal. And I went to the Queen Elizabeth Hotel and here is Oliver Jones playing cocktail hours from 5 till 7 at the Beaver Club and later on at nighttime at Biddle’s. So I went to Biddle’s and I introduced myself and I said, oh by the way I have a little jazz club in Toronto and his answer was, “Yes I heard about, but you don’t hire Canadian artists”. I said, “I will change the concept very fast.”

Oliver Jones: Do you know that I was the very first Canadian that played there? And I was so surprised that Lothar had brought me in and I have that wonderful opportunity to play there.

Lothar Lang: When I booked him the first time people were skeptic, but they showed up, they wanted to see if it’s working. And it worked then they said, how come you only booked him for a week because at that time we book every solo piano player for two weeks and they would come back every year roughly at the same time and I booked him only one week because he said, “I’m only coming for one week just in case I’m a failure.” And then after a couple of days, you know, people said, “Wow! You only booked him for a week. When is he coming back? When he is coming back? When is he coming back?”

Ross Porter: Oliver did come back to the club and his following in the city grew and grew. In 1986, Oliver expanded his horizons by playing dates in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji. In ’87, he toured Europe. In ’88, South America. And in 1989, Oliver undertook a series of shows that would both challenge and invigorate him, a tour through Egypt and the Ivory Coast of Africa.

Jim West: When Oliver got asked to do this tour. He said “I will do that tour, yes. As long as you set up one free show for the kids in that place. So in other words you’re going to have 2 shows at night, one for the paying elite, but I want one show to go to the kids. And there is no admission. They get in.” Now, we did that everywhere we went. The Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and we played many different little cities, right? In Nigeria there were two and a half thousand kids hanging out the rafters they come to see the show, it was incredible. It was really special.

Ross Porter: Accompanying Oliver on stage was bassist Dave Young.

Dave Young: It was culturally and musically really an eye opener for all of us. Playing in Nigeria is, it’s not like going to Harlem or something. That’s going to a country where there’s a lot of people who have never heard anything about what we do. As a matter of fact the majority of them have no, really, they’re not aware of what jazz music is. You know, just the concept of what we do and how we do it. So, it was a pretty adventurous undertaking both our parts.

Jim West: In Cairo, I remember we were sort of almost warned by some government official thing, you know, jazz is not a mainstay here. Not many people understand jazz or know jazz. So, don’t be afraid of the reaction and don’t, you know, just be very careful what, you know, don’t worry, not that they don’t appreciate what you’re doing, but it’s really new to them. Well a long story to short, Oliver starts the show, he did something I’ve never seen him do before and he never, I don’t think he has done it again since then. But he basically taught the history of jazz. He stopped after every song and explained what he did. Now, he knew that audience was not reading everything 100%. The audience, between the audience, he spoke in English and French because there are many French-speaking individuals in Cairo as well. So he did cover it in two languages and did the history from - he explained to everybody how the music came from, Africa to the slaves to up to Blues and Gospel and Jazz and everything, R&B, and everything, how the whole - and he did different improvisational things on the piano and people saw that. I’m telling you without a word of a lie, they were on top of their chairs after that show clapping and screaming. And that was absolutely incredible - I’ve never seen him do that again, but it was very special.

The NFB filed a part of the tour and turned it into the documentary, Oliver Jones in Africa, a film that gained Oliver new fans in some of the most unlikely places.

Oliver Jones: One day I received a call and it was a French-Haitian school and the teacher, she said, we were showing the documentary to our youngsters and they all had an opportunity to write about different parts of the movie and she said, would you be willing to come and talk to the kids and maybe play a couple of numbers? And as I was walking, came over to my car, I heard all of these youngsters; 5, 6, 7, 8 years old yelling Oliver Jones and of them couldn’t pronounce Jones right. But it gave me such a warm, warm feeling and I had an opportunity to sit among them and talk with them and they had questions for me about what it was like growing up, when did I start to play piano. And some of the parents were there. I think from that point on it gave me such a sense of responsibility I should say. To them I was kind of a hero.


Ross Porter: Oliver has not taken the responsibility lightly. The good fortune that he has received has given him the opportunity to give back to those around him.

Jim West: First of all he is a supporter in general of any young talent. He always speaks about, you know what, sure everyone knows me as a wonderful piano player, well, you know, what’s his name over here who’s 23 years old is absolutely fantastic, you should listen to him. And he is always promoting somebody else, you know, go for the young kids, man. I’m done now. You know, that sort of attitude. Not that he’s done, but, you know, just let other people come along and that’s what Oliver has done. He did that in his own community, in the black community in Montreal. I mean, in the past month or two in Montreal it has been incredibly amount of - he’s done stuff for the union at a church. He has done stuff for cultural community center. Oliver wanted to keep that place, keep it going and do the best he can and lately, the city of Montreal gave out huge donation to that center and I think, in part because of people like Oliver Jones, who came to the system and really, still today, support it, you know. So, he’s really, I wouldn’t say unique in that way, but Oliver is a very special person. He really is.

Ross Porter: But his first commitment and connection is always with the music.

Dave Young: It’s his love and his joy of the music that really comes through whenever he is playing. And that’s what the audience picks on. The audience are very perceptive. They see you enjoying yourself and having fun and smiling and all that sort of thing. They go the same way. They enjoy the music, you know, the music might not be very deep, but if you’re having a good time, they’re having a good time. If you are very serious, you know, Miles is up there with his - playing his serious stuff, then you have to be a serious audience. So Oliver is able to transmit that feeling, that feeling of happiness to the audience.

Oliver Jones: The audience is there to listen, but you also have to make sure that they become a very important part and feel as though you are playing especially for them and I think that has been my strongest point and has kept me working the longest.

Dave Young: He plays music to people who can recognize. I mean, he plays a whole Gershwin medley that people go, “Ah, I know that, I know that.” I mean people love Gershwin. So, but Oliver has been quite astute at, you know, using that kind of repertoire, not just Gershwin, but all the major composers and playing those melodies that people, they know them, they like them, they can hum them, they remember them from being, you know, when they were kids. I mean, that’s smart, musically. You can improvise on those tunes. You can improvise on “The Man I Love” or whatever it is, but to play that tune and have the people go, “Ah yeah, I like that!” Then you’ve got them.

Recorded live at Pepe’s Club in Halifax. Here’s Oliver Jones from the album ‘Requestfully Yours’ with a medley of Gershwin songs.


You’re listening to ‘The Oliver Jones Story’ an original documentary on Jazz FM 91. I’m Ross Porter.

It’s not just music that drives Oliver. Late in life he has begun to connect to other passions as well. Former jazz club owner and friend of Oliver’s Lothar Lang.

Lothar Lang: He’s a great golfer. Absolutely great golfer. And he approaches golf like he approach playing the piano. It has to make sense and if it does make sense you work until it make sense. I have a marvelous time. Played with him, his birthday is on 11th of September. Played with him on his 65th birthday in Toronto. He was in town for something. He’s playing, I can’t remember, I know the golf course, we played at Deer Creek and suddenly his cell phone goes off. He has Prime Minister Chrétien on the phone wishing him happy birthday. Great! Great! He just wished him happy birthday. You know, just wished him happy birthday, how is he doing etc. So, he just, most probably, Chrétien said “Oh my friend Oliver from Montreal, it’s his birthday, give him a call. That’s has his cell number.” That he was on the golf course. Nobody knows that he is at the golf course at that time, and the two people we played with just said, “Who is he that guy?” You know, it’s like, I said, well you know, he is fairly well known, you know. All of Canada of course, but you know, that’s understandable. The other two people have no clue who he really was - because he never talks about himself and you can’t, when you’re in his presence you can’t really say, “Oh by the way this is blah, blah, blah.” He would slap me. He doesn’t like that. He’s a very, very down to earth person, but a great golfer.


Ross Porter: In the year 2000, at age 65, Oliver decided to call it quits. He felt that he had accomplished all he’d set out to do. He had a formidable second career as a jazz musician been awarded several JUNOs, a Martin Luther King Award as well as the Order of Canada and now he felt it was time to close up the piano and retire.

Lothar Lang: The first time he retired, my wife personally called him up because we needed a favor from him because one of our artist couldn’t make it he had an illness and we need a replacement on a short notice and my wife called him up and said, “Oliver you owe me one,” you know, and he said, “Sure no probs.” And he came in and filled in on a short notice then he retired again then the second time we got him out Jim Galloway called him up. Jim called him up and said “I’ve heard through the great one, you could be interested of playing for Lothar again.” because after he did us a favor the first time, he said to me, “Don’t ask me again.” I said, “No problem.” So, even then we would talk quite often. We would talk about his golf, the weather in Florida when are you coming down how is Montreal doing. We never talked about playing at my club. So Jim got him out for the second time and that I think the third time he got bored. He missed the music.

Jim West: I think he wanted to come back because, you know, in the back of his mind he was 65 when he retired and he is going, everyone retires at 65. It’s just one of those things right? Which is not true anymore anyways even in the workplace right? Many people stay on longer, but I think he was just fixated on that in his mind and he did. So he just did, but the requests came in more and more and more and then he just said, “Well maybe I’ll come back and do something.” And then he said, “Let’s do a record, why don’t we do that?” And so it built up more and more and I’m very happy he’s back.

Ross Porter: From the album he released after his first retirement. Here’s Oliver Jones dueting with bassist Skip Bay in the song, ‘Boogie Blues’.


Ross Porter: In the relatively short time since Oliver made the decision to pursue life as a jazz musician, he has had the life that most people only dream of. His musical talents have taken him around the world, filled his soul with memories and his resume full of accolades. He had accomplished almost everything that he wanted to do in his life, but still there was one thing missing. Even after all these years, he never shared the stage with the man who inspired him to play in the first place. He had never performed with Oscar Peterson. That is until 2004 at the closing gala of the 25th Edition of the Montreal Jazz Festival.

Jim West: I think they have got on around midnight or so, or quarter to 12, I don’t remember, but it was, I mean the whole audience just went crazy of course because that’s a highlight. I mean, I’m not sure, I can’t remember the time when Oscar has done that before.

Oliver Jones: Looking across at him, knowing that I’m going to be playing and I said, “I finally made it”. Over the years I’ve seen him play so many times and of course, I’ve known so much of his material from listening to him since I was 5 or 6 years old, but I didn’t think anything was going to move me as much as looking across and having him kind of nod at me, “Yes. That’s all right.” You know. It was probably, and I know without a doubt now when people ask me, what was your greatest thrill, and that was it. Definitely! I had the wonderful opportunity of playing opposite Dave Brubek, George Shearing, Hank Jones, and Jay McShann and so many others playing other two pianos, but that was, without a doubt the most wonderful experience that I have ever had.

Here is Oliver Jones along with Oscar Peterson and “Hymn to Freedom.”


Ross Porter: It was an extraordinary moment in Oliver’s life and after Oscar’s passing on the 23rd of December 2007, Oliver had a chance to reflect on the man whose very presence had meant so much to him.

Oliver Jones: Truly he was an inspiration for me becoming a jazz pianist that’s for sure. He was the first jazz pianist that I heard in my life. I guess around the age of 4 or 5 and he was always there. He was always the mentor for me and it was watching what he did in his life and what he accomplished that I think that give me the impetus to carry on.

Ross Porter: Life has come full circle for Oliver. He still maintains ties to Oscar’s sister Daisy, the woman who taught him to play so many years ago in Little Burgundy.

Oliver Jones: She is still alive and I still get the chance once in a while to go and visit her and she is always, she always, her mind will slip in and out, but she’ll always remember the things that I have done or the recitals that I’ve played, or passages that I had problems with. It amazes me that she could remember those things that happened 60 years ago and she has a piano there and every time I go I could sit down and all of a sudden all of my fingering that join it for the last 20 years that I probably don’t pay as much attention to will go back and automatically I’ll start playing the right position and she will be there and she just nods her head and she was very proud of what has happened to me. And she always says, “I knew you were going to make it.”

Ross Porter: Just in Time records found and president, Jim West.

Jim West: He’s a great individual and he has the talent and he is a wonderful guy. You put those three things together and that’s what makes somebody great. I mean you can be technically great and not really do it or accomplish it all. Oliver has the package, you know, he’s got the ability to, you know, strive for the best. He writes great material. I’ve been to five doctorals and celebrations in his honor and the last one being University of Montreal where they actually named a scholarship in his honor, you know. So, you know, he’s Order of Canada and awarded the Governor General’s award, I mean, he’s the complete package. They don’t make them better than that.

Oliver Jones: All of the wonderful things that have happened over the last 25 years alone is, it’s made me realize that you don’t put limits on yourself. Other people may try to, but if you persevere, no one will be able to deny you.


Ross Porter: Oliver Jones truly has had an extraordinary career. He is known internationally as a great jazz player and in Canada as a great role model. His decision late in life to embrace jazz has given him a focus that comes, no doubt with experience and what he’s been able to achieve since he made the commitment to jazz in 1981 has been truly amazing. With more than 25 albums, as well as an impressive array of both musical and humanitarian awards, he has forged a life that will no doubt inspire jazz pianist for generations to come.

Oliver Jones is and will be for some time one of Canada’s finest jazz players and for as long as he is still playing we can count ourselves very fortunate to be able to sit back and listen to his magic.


I’m Ross Porter and you’ve been listening to ‘The Oliver Jones Story’ an original documentary on Canada’s premier jazz station, Jazz FM 91.

The documentary was produced Geoff Siskind executive producer was Ross Porter.

We recognize the financial support provided by the Department of Canadian Heritage by the Canadian Culture Online Program.

A very special thanks to Oliver Jones.

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