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

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)

HONK ON square

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!