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TONY BEST: Bajan jazz maestro


TONY BEST

TONY BEST: Bajan jazz maestro

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AT 81 YEARS OLD, Oliver Jones, the son of Bajans, is considered one of Canada’s and indeed Barbados’ greatest gifts to the world of jazz.

His versatility as a recording artiste, mastery of the keyboard, career that spans continents and decades, the music, national and provincial awards and public acclaim showered on him are second only to those of the greatest Canadian jazz musician, Oscar Peterson who died in 2007.

Interestingly, Jones who was born and raised in a Bajan-oriented home in St Henri, a working class neighbourhood of Montreal, credits Peterson with laying the foundation for his successful career.

At the same time, he praises Peterson’s sister, Daisy Sweeny, an outstanding music teacher, for giving him the confidence and early piano lessons that have made him a jazz legend in Canada.

“I don’t believe I would have achieved the amount of success I have if it hadn’t been for Oscar opening doors,” Jones told Bill Bronstein, a music critic of the Montreal Gazette, Quebec’s leading English-language newspaper.

Jones has enthralled music lovers next door in the United States as well as in Britain, Barbados, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Switzerland, Cuba, Australia, Brazil, Fiji, Holland, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Egypt and Namibia. In addition, he has appeared with the Symphony Nova Scotia, Orchestra Metropolitan and the Quebec Symphony.

The Oscar Peterson connection is a key chapter in the Bajan-Canadian’s life story, one he tells with relish.

“We used to live close to Oscar, and I would sit on his doorstep and listen to him play,” said Oliver, who was between five to eight years old at the time. “Oscar was so determined and knew what he wanted to do. I tried to emulate him.”

The then aspiring pianist recalled for the Montreal Gazette how his career began with his first public performance when he was five years old.

“I was backstage when I heard an announcement from the show’s MC that ‘Master Jones’ was now going to play. This lady was trying to push me out to the stage, but I told her they were asking for Master Jones and my name was Oliver,” he said.

“After I finished (playing) I jumped off the bench before anyone could help me and ran to the back so fast that I wasn’t aware how the audience reacted,” he said.

The rest, as they say is history. Tens of thousands of recitals and other performances later, some before European royalty, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and United States President Bill Clinton; more than a dozen jazz albums to his credit and a treasure trove of awards, including three Junos, the Canadian equivalent of the American Grammy and the national jazz award, Keyboardist of the Year in 2006 speak to the regard in which he is held in the world of music.

That’s not all. He is the recipient of the Order of Canada for “outstanding achievements in the arts,” the Order of Quebec, the province’s highest honour; the Martin Luther King Jr Award for his contribution’s to Canada’s black community, and the Governor-General’s Performing Arts Award in 2005 when he was hailed for a “lifetime of artistic achievement”.

Oliver started playing in clubs in Montreal when he was nine years old and was quick to explain that his mother and father appreciated his interest in music but were careful not to force him to play.

A lasting picture stored in his memory bank was Oscar at the piano in his home in Ontario just before he died.

“I noticed Oscar wiping away a few tears. Then he was saying that our fathers would never have believed what happened to us. He said that between us we had 24 doctorates and that we had played for kings and queens and presidents and prime ministers all over the world,” Jones said. “This was beyond anything we could have ever dreamed about, let alone our parents.”

Tony Best is the Nation’s North American correspondent.

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