R.I.P., Mr. Bendzsa

I received word this afternoon: Paul has passed away.

I’ve been dreading and expecting this all week.  And I still can’t believe it.

As I’m processing this, I’ve been checking out some of his music where I can find it online.  (As I write this I’m enjoying some improvisations he recorded with Michael Venart and company).

One of his main projects I’ve admired in recent years has been his duo with Rob Power, called Spanner.  There’s info on Rob’s site about their eponymous 2006 album, as well as Dark Boat (2009).  I highly recommend this music.

You can hear him on YouTube playing a piece called Nautilus for clarinet and electronics by David Keane.

On a note closer to home, here’s a touching home-made video of Paul on soprano saxophone and his son Nick on guitar playing an original song called “Apple Cider.”

My heart goes out to his family.


Paul Bendzsa

I received some devastating news yesterday evening:  Paul Bendzsa, mentor and friend,  was in palliative care and taken off life support.  A young, exuberant 76-year-old, who belied his age by decades, and whom I figured would live to be 100+, now only has hours left.

While on some “objective” level it might be exaggerating to say, I believe the path to the individual I’ve ultimately become began the day I stepped into Paul’s office at the MUN School of Music for my first saxophone lesson with him.  People for whom the label “Musician” refers to their core identity, will know what I mean. I didn’t start to become a Musician until I began working with Paul and I wouldn’t be the musician I am – especially one for whom improvisation plays a central role – without Paul Bendzsa. It was January 1993 and I wasn’t yet 20 years old – and still a business major, for crying out loud! – and all that mattered before that day would matter less and less as Paul coached me over the next several years into the creative spirit that I am today.

I think we worked on an Arthur Frackenpohl piece called “Air for Alto” on that first day.  I remember him devising a 5- or 6- note phrase, although I don’t remember the exact words, that would help me relate to how to play the opening sequence. And although it would be a struggle for months, he got me out of the bad playing (tone production) habits I’d developed up to that point.  Over the years, people have complimented me on my saxophone tone and Bendsza deserves at least half the credit.

He subsequently mentored me through solo recitals, chamber music and jazz band concerts.  We had an extra-curricular improvisation group “Shades of Orange” in my graduating year.  On top of all that were the laughs and the hugs.

Not enough will ever be said about this man and his impact on the music community of St. John’s, NL.  I know my friends (and fellow players) like Greg Bruce, Susan Evoy and Chris Harnett all feel the same way.

Where would we be without Paul Bendzsa?

We all loved him like family.  And it’s impossible to put into words how much we appreciated him and how much we will miss him.

paul bendzsa


more info:

Paul’s 2018 Sound Symposium bio

Paul’s profile at the Canadian Music Centre

Samba Elegua, October PSK

Another event at the last Pedestrian Sunday in Kensington (PSK) was a performance by Samba Elegua, of which I’m a member – since August I’ve been in good standing after a near-total absence since the fall of 2017 (wink, wink to Samba Elegua members).  We played along Augusta Ave from 6:00 to 6:30pm: samba, dancehall, funk and samba-reggae, all to our hearts’ delight.

I love this band. I love the people in it and I love the vibe.  As our website states, Samba Elégua is “a non-profit, volunteer-run musical community, powered by the passion of its members. It is free to join and open to all, from novices to experienced players.”

Notice this last bit.  WE NEED MORE MEMBERS!!!  Especially, we need caixa players.  (caixa is a Brazilian snare drum).  There were only two of us at the last performance and, as loud and as passionate as we are, two of us can’t keep up with the pounding of the big surdos, who typically lay down the beats behind us, and the thrilling, melodic clatter and clanging  of the the tamborims and agogo bells ahead of us.

Here’s a picture – taken by my buddy-in-brass-bands, trumpeter Gerry Bortolussi – of us milling about before we get set to play.  Some are into the cat-themed, Halloween spirit; I’m not sure about myself, whom you can see to the right all dressed in black and decked out in hat and shades.


New band; last PSK of 2019

This past Sunday was the last Pedestrian Sunday in Kensington Market (PSK) for the 2019 season.

Part of the day’s festivities featured the debut of a new band that has emerged from the murky drama of the Toronto brass community.  We don’t know what to officially call ourselves but we’re going by Hiatus Brass for now.  And that’s because the members come from Street Brass, which has been put on hold by leader Chris Butcher.

Hiatus is going to be an “invitation only” community band and I’ve been invited to be Musical Director.  I like that there’s a group of core members that do all the non-musical organizing so I can focus on leading and arranging.

On Sunday we played old Street Brass chestnuts like “I’m Walkin'”, “Saints” and “Liza Jane”.  I think the overall feeling now is to dig into some new repertoire not only to freshen things up but also to foster an independent identity.  One of our musicians said he’s more or less hoping that he doesn’t have to play these songs ever again!  For most of the musicians, the Street Brass repertoire, while absolutely vital to the street band tradition, has gotten to be a bit ‘old hat’ and needs to be put on the back burner for a bit.  We can always refresh if a gig comes up or when it’s time to support the springtime Street Brass initiative, which includes preparing for the Dundas Street Festival in June.

Next rehearsal we’ll start taking a look at “Blue Bossa” and “King of the Road” among others.  This week I’m working on a new arrangement of the former, featuring some funky tuba lines, four-part harmony and a catchy interlude.  Having an in-house arranger will definitely contribute to a unique sound.

Hopefully, we can manage to get some gigs before the PSK season starts up again next May.  As of now though, our next public appearance is scheduled for that time, the last Sunday afternoon in May 2020.

Here’s a still from Steve Lederman’s video set-up. Steve (sousaphone) and Alison (trumpet) are into the Halloween spirit!  And dig Judith’s cool green boots!


Avoiding Activist Burnout (feature in NOW Magazine)

The cover story for the August 8-14 issue of NOW magazine was titled “How to Fight Activist Burnout”, featuring an essay by artist Syrus Marcus Ware.

Ware has juggled a busy art career with working other jobs, in addition to “working pretty much full-time” as an activist.  Eventually, all this resulted in a season of burnout that “affected everything”: art practice, activism and family life.

Ware cites the support of friends and lovers, accessing care supports and even luck with being able to pull through, acknowledging that many activist-artists don’t make it.

Ongoing awareness of these kinds of difficulties is the main reason I’m amplifying Ware’s message here.  It’s an important message for activist musicians and is especially relevant during periods of “the heightened political divisiveness we are seeing today.”  Moreover, I’ve experienced burnout myself juggling musical pursuits, multiple jobs and personal commitments, without being seriously involved in any activism, let alone to the degree Ware has been.  However, I do want to be more involved and it’s through music I can make that happen.  Yet, I’d very much like to avoid burning out again.

Given the political shite we are continuing to experience these days, community is not only necessary to safeguard against personal burnout, but it’s the key to an activist life.  (Actually, it’s probably the key to life itself, but a more focused point needs to be made at the moment!). Ware has expressed the “need to care for activists before the toll on them becomes too great” – to “celebrate and nourish”, which Ware does through writing “love letters” and drawing portraits – and a call to continually combine artistic practice with activism, “using every form of communication as an agent of change.”

In a quest to find further solutions to avoiding burnout, Ware talked to some “comrades in the struggle” and found these are important: 1) seeking balance among various pursuits (when it’s easy to get caught up in something specific), 2) various forms of self-care, physical and mental 3) awareness of the toll that being in “crisis mode” takes – and our limits for tolerating this.

All of the above might be somewhat intuitive or touted as common knowledge or “common sense” but we would do well to revisit these points, to keep them in mind since we can easily forget about what’s good for us.

For me, the golden combination of community, music and activism is best expressed and experienced through the HONK! movement and related activity.

Apart from the simple joy that comes from participating in HONK!, it is an established system of civic engagement that promotes inclusivity and the breaking of social barriers.  It means I can step away from it if I need a rest and be satisfied that my like-minded friends are going to keep playing music, bringing love and joy to the people and supporting those in need of support.

Being able to rely on others and take a rest once in a while are the key ways to avoid burning out. In so doing, we can help maintain a life balance, take care of ourselves and avoid being in crisis mode for too long.

In the face of continued or renewed struggle, that’s the way forward when it comes to succeeding at the long game.

Frank Dukes’s coolest idea EVER

Toronto music producer Frank Dukes has had a lot of cool ideas – just ask Drake or Eminem or Kendrick Lamar or Rihanna or Lorde or…well, you get it.

But beyond his creative work as a producer and songwriter, Dukes has contributed to the industry in his approach to how sampling is dealt with. In order to help artists bypass the mire of clearing samples that are used in the beat-making process of creating songs, (and by doing so, help mitigate the “robbery” of songwriters), Dukes created a readily available sample library called the Kingsway Music Library: essentially a sonic version of Getty Images catering to hip hop and pop music producers.

But this new idea takes the cake.

Dukes has partnered with The Regent Park School of Music in Toronto to create a project that will not only inspire high profile artists, but is also a fundraiser for the school and a cool outlet for the kids.  The school’s general mission, according to Executive Director Richard Marsella, is “to offer young kids access to music education” by removing the high costs that bar so many under-privileged from the joys of music.  About 1000 kids across the city are currently benefiting from the school’s programs.  Further, RPSM intends to “empower” the students and “help them act as positive role models” in the community.  Taking this mission and “cranking it to 11” is what comes of the collaboration with Dukes.

Simply put, Duke’s idea was to create a sample library featuring young musicians from the RPSM so that when the music is used, the proceeds go back to the school.  More specifically, Dukes says, “the money from the masters side and the retail side goes to RPSM…and then when the music gets sampled, the school also gets a royalty.”  It’s the first music sample library that funds music education.

So cool!

Lately, RPSM has been tweeting about all this, how their kids have been involved in a recording project called Parkscapes Vol. 1, and how it has been first picked up by Taylor Swift! One of the pieces has been sampled on “It’s Nice to Have a Friend”, from her brand new album, Lover.  I bet those kids are crazy excited!

You rock, Mr. Dukes.


Frank Dukes Vice article from February 2015

Frank Dukes Complex article from April 2016


Review: Rinzler’s Contradictions of Jazz

I’ve come to regard this book as a personal sacred text. It’s as much about how to think as it is about jazz. I see myself returning to it over and over, mainly because I need as much help with thinking as I can get. Also, if anything supports the jazz-as-life metaphor (while not explicitly stating it), Rinzler’s book does. And I can dig it. Rinzler begins with a brief exposition of the various ways two concepts can be in opposition to each other and create a complex, dynamic tension rather than be mutually exclusive (e.g. gradation, propagation, juxtaposition, etc.). We can let ourselves be trapped into thinking that it’s either…my way or the highway, for instance – i.e. mutual exclusivity – rather than hold that both “ways” might co-exist and together offer a more complete version of reality. In Part 2, Rinzler follows up with the explanations of eight primary (and paired) values of jazz and how they may or may not manifest themselves, and then in the third part explains the musical and practical ramifications of these oppositions or contradictions: individualism vs. interconnectedness, assertion vs. openness, freedom vs. responsibility & creativity vs. tradition. Finally, Part 4 is an exploration of what these pairings “mean” in jazz, as well as existentially. As a result of reading this, I not only understand jazz better – an art I have practiced myself for over 20 years – but I also understand life better. Rinzler - Contradictions