HONK! ON Festival Makes Successful Debut

Our first HONK! ON Festival was amazing.  And of course it went by in a whirlwind of sound and colour.

Before all that though, the time spent thinking and organizing and anticipating slipped by rather slowly and then BAM it was suddenly run-up week and the jitters kicked in.  Our apartment was HONK! Central with t-shirts and last-minute to-do lists everywhere.  The first day seemed a little surreal and even with all the prep still going on, it took a while to sink in that it had really arrived…

Marion referred to the opening band social evening in Dufferin Grove Park as being a “soft start” and it really is the way to go as far as organizing a festival is concerned.  We probably got the idea from the band gathering they did for the opening of HONK! Fest in Somerville last October.  Although you need to have virtually all your prep done by opening night, because it’s more informal than the public performance days, you have a chance to iron out a few things at the last minute as well as answer questions and get everything in motion for the real deal starting the next day.

My official opening really started with greeting and then rehearsing members of the Ad HONK! Band, our open, festival-only band for independent participants and anyone else who wants to support.  We worked on two tunes: an original of mine called “Town Hall” and Sonny Rollins’s “St. Thomas.”  It went really well but took way more energy than I was expecting.  As we were cluing up, other band members began showing up and it was nice to see connections and re-connections established among the musicians.  I was super impressed that Extraordinary Rendition Band showed up in full regalia! Some spontaneous jamming went on until it was time to quiet down for Clay & Paper Theatre’s show going on in elsewhere in the park.  It was a real bonus for us that they were doing the show, as it became an optional activity for our participants.  After chilling at the bonfire for a while ERB blasted out some jams and we had several park patrons join the crowd.  Of course, as the evening drew to a close, we got approached by park staff about noise complaints. Oh well,  there it is.  Next year we’ll probably do Christie Pits Park because we can have a larger gathering and it’s also a designated park for music events.

After leaving Dufferin Grove many of us went to Drom Taberna to hear/see the Scruffy Aristocrats, one of our participant bands (and a sub-set of ERB).  Jim, the sousa player came to say hello to Marion and I and mentioned his nervousness at having to follow the Heavyweights Brass Band but they were awesome – great sounds, great charisma.  We left during their second set – long way to travel back to York – and heard the next day the band got asked to do a third set.  Matt, the alto player said it was probably the most fun, best received gig they’d done so far.  Thank you Drom and Drom fans.

You’d think after all that and feeling wiped out on the late-night TTC ride home that getting at least a bit of rest would be so easy.  Nope.  So wired!  So Saturday started way too early with me going to pick up a rental van. We loaded up our t-shirts and other gear and went to pick up Trevor’s drumkit (he plays in my band Sax Drive).  We had plenty of time to get to Alexandra Park by 11am, meeting with Gerry and Catherine, a couple from Street Brass who volunteered to help.  In the interest of having an unrushed morning, we decided to leave the barbeque pick-up until later in the day when I could leave after my band’s set.  It was probably just as well.  A little while later we learned it crapped out on us.  Fortunately, we were borrowing it from Candace (the person who designed our wonderful t-shirts!) and she and her friend Bri who visited us from Indiana for the weekend, took care of it for us.  I honestly don’t know how we would’ve handled it if they couldn’t!

Apart from that and a couple short rain showers the afternoon went off without trouble.  The Ad HONK! band kicked things off at noon with a little processional along a portion of Dundas before turning south on Bathurst towards and into the park. There were only a few people on hand at the start to welcome us but I’m sure next year and as we build we’ll have more people.  In fact, there weren’t huge crowds throughout the day but the advantage of having it all in one place is that the bands can support one another as well as have the opportunity to socialize.  This doesn’t really happen to the same extent when bands are assigned to perform at different locations.  I think this is the primary reason we plan to keep the festival a smaller event, at least for a while.

After the performances we marched over to Trinity Bellwoods, sending four separate groups over with short gaps between.  Meanwhile, Kevin, our master-at-HONK!-grilling, was assembling the new BBQ.  The bands set up in a collective outside our booked BBQ area and proceeded with a tune-sharing and jam.  I loved this part.  There wasn’t much to do but wait at this point so I was able to join in.  It ended up being great additional exposure for our festival in this other location (including the neighbourhood between parks), and immensely satisfying as we were denied our original permit at this park in the 11th hour and had to re-locate.

That evening was much more chill although when we finally made it home, exhausted but content, there was a bit of admin work to do for the Sunday Pedestrian Sunday event.  I had only received the plan from the Kensington organizer the day before and the visiting bands in particular still only had a vague idea of the plan.  We also had one of our local groups bail on us so we had an extra slot to fill.  It all worked out really great though.

I went to play in the 12pm Street Brass set on Sunday and managed to recruit some members to come back and play at the new spot at 5pm.  I had to get my own band set up for 5:30pm and help Trevor with his kit.  I think the pre-finale processionals through the market were a big hit although I only caught glimpses.  Then the visiting bands were set up in a triangle spanning the south end of Kensington Ave where they alternated tunes for a closing 45-minute set.  At just after 8pm we were off to Drom once again for the after party.  We literally drank the place out of radlers.

The most heartwarming of the post-festival experience was to learn from several of the local musicians just how fabulous the whole thing was – not just the festival itself – but the whole HONK! vibe, how exciting it was, how inspiring it was, etc.  They finally get it.

My only regret is that, not being much of an extrovert/schmoozer, I didn’t take the initiative to talk to more of the visiting band members.  Apart from a handful, I don’t know if they felt like it was worth coming!  But I guess this is only the beginning.  With this foundation, as we travel to other festivals we can make stronger connections and close this gap.

Marion and I are seriously considering another trip to Somerville this fall.  I hear there’s going to be an open band that I can participate in so I’m definitely bringing my horn this time.

HONK! ON Propaganda (Part 1)

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One of the challenges of bringing the HONK! community to Toronto is actually building the local support network. In other words, we want to expand the broader HONK! community by leading our city into this special musical melee but part of our efforts are spent generating local interest among potentially like-minded musicians.

HONK! ON is unlike a lot of music festivals. It’s non-commercial so there are no ticket sales, for instance.  Apart from some merchandise sales to help generate some operational capital, it’s a hardly a commercial venture at all.  In this regard, gaining “exposure” is less a marketing concern than it is a community-generating concern.  It’s all volunteer-based and bands pay their way to come and play.  Hopefully, in the future we’ll have generated enough community and grant-based funding to offer a stipend to bands to help offset costs.

The priority – at least as I see it – is that bands have a good time!  HONK! ON is basically a community party with music.  I hope that the visiting bands have such a good time that they will want to come again and talk it up to their colleagues.  I hope that local musicians enjoy a unique musical experience that is exciting enough to cause ripples throughout their circles of influence.

In terms of the HONK! world, what’s taking place in Toronto this coming weekend is very special. It’s local music history-in-the-making.  What’s particularly a treat – and the locals generally have no idea about the degree of significance! – is that we are to be honoured by the presence of three of the longest-running HONK! bands: Second Line Social Aid & Pleasure Society Brass Band, Extraordinary Rendition Band and The Carnival Band.

All three of these bands were at the very first HONK! Fest in Somerville, Massachusetts in 2006.  I think it’s absolutely wonderful that they’re all going to be here to help us launch HONK! ON.

Sax Drive begins!

So, first of all, we had a tremendously successful HONK! OFF event on July 7th, meeting with tons of good vibes, support, and raising about $500 in funds for our inaugural HONK! ON Festival coming up in less than two weeks!

HUGE thanks to Drom Taberna for hosting the event and being such gracious hosts to boot.  Thank you to Marion Lougheed, my love and partner, for helping me to put all this together! And special thanks go as well to Micaela Morey, who not only was crucial in helping us organize, but also did an amazing performance of various cover songs with her band.  Lauren Barnett and her partner Demetri Petsalakis – known as Catchfiyah in their duo appearances – also were wonderful (and it was so much fun to sit in with them playing bari sax!)  Both Micaela and Lauren play in my new band…

which leads me to…

Sax Drive - Drom Taberna July 2019

A significant detail for me, personally: the launch of Sax Drive.  We played a great five-sax set of some of my original tunes, which seemed to go over extremely with our crowd.  We are pumped to play our next gig at HONK! ON on the afternoon of Saturday, July 27th at Trinity Bellwoods Park (exact time TBA).

A brief description of Sax Drive goes something like this:

Sax Drive is a new funky jazz combo based in Toronto and led by composer/saxophonist Jason Hayward. The group also features Lauren Barnett and Scott Pearce on alto sax, Nicole Auger and Micaela Morey on tenor sax, along with Tavo Diez de Bonilla on bass and Trevor Yearwood on drums. Beyond that of a traditional jazz combo eschewing a chordal comping instrument, the band’s groove-based aesthetic is informed by diverse influences, including New Orleans street bands, Big Band sax sections, chamber music and EDM.

“Sax Drive” is a name I’ve had in mind for this project for ages!  However, seems like some people have beat me to the name.  Before we get too far along, I may have to change it or add something to it.  Maybe not.  We are way, way cooler after all.

In the meantime…

We started our Sax Drive Facebook page.

And next, we take the world by storm!

Eventually.

A HONK! OFF event: July 7, 2019

There is “HONK!”, the catch-all label for all HONK! Festival-related shenanigans.

There is “HONK! ON“, the Toronto-based version of the HONK! Festival – happening for the first time July 27-28, 2019!!!

Now, there is “The HONK! Off”, which is what we Toronto HONK-ers call events that support our HONK!-related activities.

Our first is an afternoon fundraiser concert/cabaret at Drom Taberna (458 Queen St. W) happening July 7, 2019 from 3pm to 7pm.

My new band, Sax Drive, will make its debut at this event!!!

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HONK!TX 2019 memories…

Austin, Texas – March 28-31

Day 1: Brass Band Blitz 7

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Featured 30-minute sets from several of the visiting bands. From 9pm to 12:30am we heard from Chaotic Noise Marching Corps (Seattle, WA), Clamor & Lace Noise Brigade (Chicago, IL), Damas de Ferro (Rio, Brazil), Desperate Measures Street Band (Somerville, MA), Emperor Noron’s Stationary Marching Band (Somerville, MA), Funkrust Brass Band (Brooklyn, NY) and Vibrass Project (San Salvador, El Salvador). Here’s the link to the  Facebook event. Because it’s an indoor event, you get to enjoy delicious beer:

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Day 2: Friday Night in Mueller Park

Six locations, four 30-minute time slots from 6:30pm to 8pm.  After catching a set by Austin locals MeowNow, we settled into another location to hear Funkrust (they impressed heavily the night before), followed by Minor Mishap and then Chaotic Noise. At 8pm in the park’s amphitheatre we had a preview from each band as they played one song a piece.  We volunteered to help with set-up so I didn’t bring my camera.

Day 3: Saturday in Adams Park

Seven locations, 45-minute sets.  We enjoyed back-to-back sets by Vibrass Project, Big Blitz and Funkrust and managed to catch snippets of a couple others, including March Madness Marching Band…

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…and Minor Mishap Marching Band:

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Day 3: East Austin Parades and Band Review (Pan Am Park). Just past noon, we joined one of the sidewalk processionals.  In this photo, you can see me on the left lending my prodigious clave talents to the group (a lot of musicians are not playing; hope it wasn’t my fault):

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Day 4: Wrap Party

Also indoors, also featuring beer.  Too dark for photos (that’s my excuse, not the beer).

You can check out the Full Schedule and/or peruse the Festival site:  http://honktx.org

Can’t wait for next year!

In the meantime, it’s off to Pittonkatonk in Pittsburgh this weekend!

Memorial In Motion

Memorial in Motion - Van Attack - 2019 Flyer

In remembrance of the Toronto Van Attack, April 23, 2018, I led a small group in what was intended to be a processional along Yonge Street from Finch to Sheppard.

We managed to play for an hour or so, keeping out of the rain under several sheltered spots along the first few blocks of our route.  Ultimately, the weather thwarted our attempts to make it all the way to Sheppard.  Nevertheless, I was proud to do this and grateful for the support of my lovely Street Brass comrades.
I’ll be arranging this again next year and hope to make it an annual event.  Our music can express aspects of grief, honour, solidarity, compassion and love that can’t be expressed otherwise.  What a gift!
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Jason Sax and Gerry's Trumpet Memorial in Motion 2019

Group Improvisation: A Pep Talk

Wanna get better at improvising? Wanna be able to capture more of that New Orleans polyphonic style?
Your brass band has gotta jam…
…even if everyone is open to soloing over a tune that you all know or are learning.  That’s awesome, but it’s a different experience from jamming/group improvising.
In group improvising, you don’t have to sustain a creative statement over the whole form of a tune.  Instead, you can find a short figure that you can repeat, or find notes that sound good as sustained “pads”, etc.  You’re contributing to the overall texture of what’s happening.
Group improvising in a jam setting offers an opportunity to experiment (because it’s not, generally, a performance) with what works for you and what doesn’t, all the while other people could potentially be doing the same thing (and not staring at you while you do it!).  It’s an opportunity to stick with a musical context for longer than the chorus of your solo and try out some things.  It’s also an opportunity to combine this exploration with listening to what others are doing and working from there (i.e. responding).  Often in soloing we approach it as creating a melody over the given harmonic/rhythm context but this is only one kind of improvisation.  Also, you could be so concerned with what you’re doing that you don’t listen to the degree that you’re capable of.  That’s a skill that takes time and practice.
Part of learning to improvise is taking the initiative to do so.  It’s intriguing when musicians who want to improvise don’t do so on a regular basis in their own practice sessions.  Even while alone and unaccompanied (which I HIGHLY recommend).  Or along with favourites records (also, recommended and probably more obvious).  And now there are lots of materials available for private practice, e.g. recorded accompaniments specifically designed for this purpose (which I’m sure you all know).
So, why is there a hesitance?  My feeling on it is that people are generally concerned with “I don’t know what to play”, seeking “right answers” to this challenge.  It can become more complicated as one develops other skills (including, ironically, technique adequate to the task) but also decreasing self-confidence/increasing fear: the “mistake” factor.  This can happen at an early age sadly, but speaks to how we generally learn music in our Western education system.  I could go on…
Group improvising offers a solution to this challenge AND it’s integral to the style of street band music (or “second line” music) that many of us practice.
It’s also fun, individually rewarding PLUS it will ultimately help with how to arrange tunes: it can give a band more flexibility in what can happen (duets, section playing, etc.).
I’m not necessarily suggesting jamming with “no structure” – although I do think there’s a place for that, too. Rather, someone can introduce a riff (not unlike some of the stuff we street band players already play as basslines to our pieces) and that we collectively improvise around it.
Part of our practice – part of the “lineage” – includes improvisation (with a strong emphasis on the collective to boot) and it’s worth spending more time on it. In my experience, the only time that band members get “to practice” (loosely) their improv skills, is when it comes time to solo on a tune.  It’s not enough, in my opinion, if members want to be better improvisers and better able to play creatively as a collective.
Even if one’s primary goal is to learn tunes and not be a jam band per se, working a little bit regularly on group improvisation in the manner I suggested is not mutually exclusive but rounds out the practice nicely.