Ebe keeps the music flowing
Fifty-three years ago, a 27-year-old Trinidadian arrived in Barbados for an intended six-week stay-over before proceeding to Britain.
Now on the eve of his 80th birthday, jazz icon Ebe Gilkes says he has no regrets about never leaving Barbados. His remaining here has given Barbados a talent which fans like the late Canadian jazz master Oscar Peterson admire and laud.
Described as “the master of melody, touch and harmonic sensitivity” by local jazz aficionado Carl Moore, Gilkes has been entertaining audiences across Barbados for over half a century. His artistry on the keyboard has won him followers around the globe.
Year after year visitors return to the hotels where he has been playing through the years, eager to sit down to yet another delightful evening with Gilkes.
Speaking to EASY at his Black Rock home, Gilkes said: “My musical career actually started in Trinidad. I had a day job but I used to play gigs at night”.
Barbados hotelier Jack Teller was present at one of those gigs and gave Gilkes his first big break – inviting him to play at Teller’s Coconut Creek Hotel for a season.
It set the young, bright-eyed artiste on the road to becoming a professional musician and a satisfying lifetime career at the keyboards in hotels and other places of entertainment throughout Barbados.
Gilkes lists hotels such as Blue Waters, Rockley Resort, Holiday Inn, the Hilton, Sandy Lane and Sandpiper among the many venues where he has entertained for over half a century with his trio and often solo.
“I always wanted to play the piano well”, he said and so started with piano lessons at age seven in his native Trinidad. In Barbados he was fortunate to come under the tutelage of Barbadian piano teacher Kit Spencer who hoped his gifted student would become a concert pianist.
But Gilkes just wanted to be “a very good pianist” and adds, “I always thought I could be. I never expected to become famous. I became a professional musician by accident and I decided I would be the best I could be”.
Many years later he reflects: “I have been lucky. I became friends with Oscar Peterson”.
Gilkes relates the story of a Sandpiper Hotel meeting that resulted in a lifelong friendship between the two outstanding jazz exponents.
“The Sunday I went to do my gig alone, who should I see sitting at the pool but Peterson . . . I was not nervous. I suppose if he had come into my life earlier I might have been, but at that stage I just said ‘so he is Oscar Peterson. Do what you have to do and go home’.
“Surprisingly, after I played a first set and came off, he called me up, and he caught me off guard when he said ‘I thoroughly enjoyed what you did there’.
It was the beginning of an enduring friendship that ended only with Peterson’s death three years ago.
Peterson invited Gilkes to be among his special guests and so rub shoulders with personalities such as actress Diahann Carrol, when the Canada Post unveiled a postage stamp in Peterson’s honour.
A Yamaha piano holds pride of place in Gilkes’ Black Rock, St Michael home – a gift from Peterson. The jazz legend’s images are many around Gilkes’ home – on signed CDS, presents from Peterson to Ebe and also in the many photographs of the two together in Barbados and in Canada.
Stepping into Gilkes’ private music room, there is immediate evidence of this musician’s total commitment to his craft in an extensive collection of music of the classical and jazz genres, the printed classical music scores, all set out around a bigger Yamaha piano. On this second piano sits the opened music score for Bach’s Partitas for the piano.
Though he admits listening to and learning from a host of talented musicians, Gilkes advises, “You should never try to copy anybody. There is only one of a person.
“What I have tried to do as a musician, and luckily I have always understood that, is that whatever ability you have, you work to develop it to the highest standard that you possibly can. Whatever I sound like, I sound like, but it is me”.
But he does not deny the benefit to be derived from listening to other good musicians, and he observes: “Barbados has a few but you have to look for them.
“I had the privilege of working with some of the best musicians in this island”, and he names legendary Barbadian trumpeter Ernie Small, pianist Keith Campbell, both deceased, and contemporary musicians such as Arturo Tappin and Mike Sealy.
Of course Gilkes has met several great musicians from the international scene, starting with Jimmy Jones, accompanist for the internationally acclaimed jazz singer Sarah Vaughan.
When friends gather at the Waterfront Café to celebrate with Ebe Gilkes on September 15, it is sure to be an assembly of people who have supported and appreciated the talent of this local jazz virtuoso. Sure to be sharing his stage will be Clarence Green on bass and Vere Gibson on drums, an indispensible part of the Ebe Gilkes trio and legacy.