Live at the Cellar echoes with cool sounds of Vancouver jazz history

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      Live at the Cellar: Vancouver’s Iconic Jazz Club and the Canadian Co-operative Jazz Scene in the 1950s and '60s
      By Marian Jago. UBC Press, 330 pp, softcover

      Jazz in Vancouver has a surprisingly long history, predating even the legendary pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton’s 1919–21 residency at the Patricia Hotel’s lounge. A century later, that locale is still a jazz venue, but other rooms and even entire genres of jazz have all but disappeared here, leaving little in the way of documentary evidence. Evanescent in its nature, a discipline of being in the moment, jazz is and should be resistant to codification.

      Which, of course, doesn’t mean that its artifacts can’t be collected and cherished, or its history written down. Too little of that work has been done in this city, and University of Edinburgh lecturer Marian Jago’s Live at the Cellar, which sports the unwieldy subtitle Vancouver’s Iconic Jazz Club and the Canadian Co-operative Jazz Scene in the 1950s and ’60s, is a welcome start.

      Doreen Williams with Chuck Knott (bass) and Al Neil (piano), ca. 1960.
      Photo by Don Cumming, courtesy of Jim Carney

      The original Cellar, as opposed to saxophonist Cory Weeds’s now-shuttered nightclub, was a basement room at 2514 Watson Street, near the intersection of Broadway and Main Street. From 1956 to 1963 it was a number of different things: a collectively managed workshop space for progressive musicians; a venue for cutting-edge imports such as Wes Montgomery, Ornette Coleman, and Charles Mingus; and perhaps most importantly, a local launching pad for the kind of interdisciplinary thinking that would blossom here in the later 1960s.

      As such, Live at the Cellar deserves an audience beyond jazz aficionados: in a town that tends to endlessly reinvent the wheel, it tells how the first wheel was forged. Or, as Jago puts it in her lengthy, sociological introduction, “Even once a scene has lost its power.…the social connections formed through participation in scenes do much to enable the social interactions upon which urban living depends.” Sixty years on, those connections, however attenuated, still animate artist-run underground venues such as Merge, Sawdust Collector, and 8EAST.

      Ornette Coleman at the Cellar in 1957.
      Courtesy of Walley Lightbody

      That link isn’t explicitly made in Live at the Cellar, but its collected anecdotal accounts sound uncannily familiar. When drummer Chuck Logan says that the Cellar was “the school of music” where young musicians could learn to be their best selves, he could be talking about any of the above “listening rooms”—and it’s this contemporary resonance that might be Jago’s greatest contribution to improvised music in Vancouver. It’s wonderful to hear about the early days of such significant cultural figures as pianist and interdisciplinary artist Al Neil, internationally acclaimed drummer Terry Clarke, and the gifted but doomed saxophonist Dale Hillary—but what really should be taken away from this book is that scenes such as theirs are what produce culture, and as such deserve more civic and media support than they presently get.