I need music to get me through this, and so I’m putting some vinyl on the turntable—and what could be more appropriate than the great South African drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo’s Spirits Rejoice? Even though it’s a sad week here, in the wake of longtime Vancouver International Jazz Festival artistic director Ken Pickering’s death at his Bowen Island home on Friday (August 10), there is cause to rejoice in knowing that Ken had a truly wonderful life, immersed in the music he loved and surrounded by friends the world over.
Right now, Moholo-Moholo’s “Amaxesha Osizi” is playing in my office. The Xhosa title translates as “People in Sorrow”, and like a lot of South African jazz the music describes a vast canvas of emotion. Sorrow, yes, but also hope and strength and a measure of the transcendental. A memorial celebration for Ken has not yet been announced, but if and when one does take place, this would be the perfect music to play.
Ken sold me this very record, probably within weeks of its release in 1978. I’d only recently landed in Vancouver from the Maritimes, and by happy coincidence had taken a room in a shared house inhabited by an odd assortment of writers, photographers, and eccentrics. Just around the corner was 2936 West 4th Avenue, the home of Ken’s business, Black Swan Records, a comfortably scruffy room where I’d soon spend quite a lot of money and even more time.
As a shopkeeper, Ken had a way of making his customers feel at ease, and an intuitive knack for determining exactly what they might want to hear. We initially bonded over our shared love of the radical American jazz of the 1960s—Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders—but it wasn’t long before he was leading me deeper into even wilder terrain. As a retailer, Ken was responsible for introducing West Coast listeners to the incandescent sounds of Moholo-Moholo and his South African colleagues, both black and white; to the scrabbling, abstract intellectuality of the London free-improv scene that produced emblematic musicians like Evan Parker and Derek Bailey; to the shimmering beauty of Steve Reich’s American minimalism; to the hi-fi landscapes of Germany’s ECM label; and to so much more.
Ken’s passion for sonic adventure and elegance kicked into overdrive in the early 1980s, when he, John Orysik, and Robert Kerr founded the Coastal Jazz and Blues Society, which in turn launched the Vancouver International Jazz Festival in 1986. By that time, I was music curator at the Western Front arts centre, and had the pleasure of hosting the nascent festival’s late-afternoon concerts—which, dedicated to the most avant of avant-garde sounds, did double duty as the primary hang for the music’s most devoted advocates.
Producing concerts—especially concerts by unsung geniuses from around the globe, on a shoestring budget—is a stressful business. Yet I don’t recall the soft-spoken Pickering ever raising his voice, and although he had a wry sense of humour it was never, ever used as a weapon. If his equanimity was tested during the initial years of the jazz festival, it didn’t show—but his resolve did. Vancouver was on the edge of the known jazz universe in 1986, but it’s now a hub of creativity, and our jazz festival has become a model of realistic experimentation for other events across Canada and beyond.
That’s largely Ken’s doing. His particular gift was for happy collaboration, between musicians and between organizations: through his international contacts he sent Vancouver artists out into the world and they returned renewed; and by teaming up with other presenters, especially in Europe and the U.K., he provided an early harbour for many artists who would go on to develop a following across North America.
The generosity and enthusiasm he showed in record retail bloomed in his role as festival AD, and never flagged. In the past couple of years, though, Ken’s body began to fail. Cancer attacked, receded after treatment, and then came back to claim him. This didn’t stop him from ensuring his legacy, assembling a succession team that—under new artistic director Rainbow Robert’s leadership and with his lifelong friend John Orysik continuing on as media director—did an absolutely stellar job with the 2018 edition of the Vancouver international Jazz Festival.
Ken didn’t get to see much of the event; looking frail but at peace, he caught only a handful of daytime shows. But it’s not pure sentiment to say his presence was everywhere, in the excellence of the programming and in the many musicians who dedicated their sets to his impeccable heart and ears. There will be many more such dedications in the months to come, from all of us who miss his abiding friendship and inspiration.
Damn, I’m crying. Let’s give “Amaxesha Osizi” one more spin.