Jazz pianist Downes talks about his many careers and his love of teaching
“It’s cold out there!” exclaims Wray Downes, as he settles into a chair in the music department’s large conference room, located in Concordia’s GM building. “At least it’s not raining,” he adds, with genuine relief, as he takes off his cloth bucket hat and unzips his jacket. On the table, he sets down the only item he is carrying: a copy of Ted Gioia’s book, History of Jazz. Downes pulls a small parking ticket out of his big winter jacket. “Oh, we’ve got plenty of time,” he says, before tucking it safely back into his jacket pocket.
Looking across the table at one of the most famous Canadian jazz musicians of all time, it is charming and unnerving to see that, at the end of the day, Downes is just another 86-year-old man who will just as happily discuss the weather and parking as he will his career.
Downes, born Rupert Arnold Downes, is a celebrated jazz pianist, composer and conductor. The musician was born in Toronto on Jan. 14, 1931. With racial discrimination present in Toronto in the 30s and 40s, Downes says life was hard growing up, but his character made it easier. “I had a big mouth, I could run fast and I also had a big fist. So, I could fight my way,” he says.
Downes recalls life was also hard because his parents didn’t have much money. He says they had to make a lot of sacrifices for him to take piano lessons for the first few years. His father was a porter. Downes says, back then, it was considered a good job at $125 to $150 a week. But with piano lessons costing $10 a week and the paycheck rolling in every two weeks, he says it wasn’t easy. So when Downes’ mother found out he could play in piano competitions for money and scholarships, the game started to change.
At 13, Downes started participating in music competitions. Quickly, he started winning… a lot. Downes recalls giving his father attitude when he would get scolded for not practicing. “When my father said… ‘Well you didn’t practice today!’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, but I just won 700 bucks for a scholarship, man!’” Downes said, leaning back in his chair theatrically and folding his hands behind his head. “I was mouthy and cheeky,” he says with a smile, and a glimmer of pride.
At just 18 years old, in 1949, Downes became the first Canadian to win the prestigious British Empire Scholarship to the Trinity College of Music in London. There, Downes recalls, there was “subtle prejudice,” which he first experienced while searching for a place to live.
He says he would see nice-looking rooms for board in the paper, give the owners a call and set up a time to visit. But then, when he arrived, the owners had magically found someone who better suited their needs. Downes started to understand what was going on. “I thought, ‘this crap is over here too.’” Luckily, he eventually found a room to call home, at Mrs. Stanley’s home. He recalls the small elderly British lady giving him quite a different welcome than the other landlords had.
“She said, ‘oh you’re the first one! Come in!’ and she gave me a big hug. And I just about swallowed my face.”
After his time in London, Downes would go on to study at other prestigious music schools, including the Paris Conservatory and, eventually, Oscar Peterson’s Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto. Peterson, one of Downes’ many mentors, was the one who suggested Downes try out jazz. Downes recalls the switch to jazz first happening when a London recruiting agency refused him because he was black. “He said, ‘I don’t think we can do anything for a black person.’ And I looked at him and said, ‘I don’t quite understand.’ And he just said, ‘What I am going to do with you?’”
While Downes had to deal with similar situations throughout his life and career, he said he eventually learned not to give into anger. “Anger doesn’t do anything. Anger only affects you, because the other person doesn’t know that you’re angry, you know? Don’t let [yourself] do this to yourself. I learned that lesson a long time ago,” he says.
Downes’ jazz career kicked off in the mid-50s, when he toured all over France and Spain with Bill Coleman, a world renowned jazz trumpeter. He would go on to work with other big jazz musicians like Buck Clayton, Annie Ross, Milt Jackson, Coleman Jackson and Lester Young, to name a few. He would eventually lead his own trios and quartets and release albums. In 1982, Downes won the Juno award for Best Jazz Album for his and Dave Young’s album, Au Privave.
Although music was always an important part of Downes’ life and career, it was never the only part.
On top of being a jazz pianist, Downes took breaks from piano to be a short-order chef, a chauffeur and a drapery installer. He finally turned to teaching in 1990. “I always did want to teach. I always did want to give back somehow, somewhere. And then, Concordia came calling.” Downes says he enjoys teaching and mentoring students, and is joyful in helping them find their own style and success.
Downes says he likes to reinforce to his students that, as a musician, it is always important to keep the audience in mind. “I say this to my students: you got to get out there and understand the people that you’re playing to. Because, no people in the club, and you’re out of work.” Downes says he learnt this lesson a long time ago, when he was told he couldn’t just play his bebop, because some want to hear the standards.
“You’re playing for those folks, because they’re the ones who put the money in your pocket and the bread and butter on your table. And, if you adhere to that, then success, hopefully, will come your way. But don’t look down on those people,” says Downes, his tone serious, and his respect for his audience apparent.
Downes is an extremely respected figure in the Canadian jazz scene. However, he is equally respected within academia. “Wray represents a vital link to the past,” says Joshua Ranger, an assistant professor in Concordia’s department of jazz studies. “It’s said that jazz music advances while standing on the shoulders of giants—and Wray is one of our giants.” He says that Downes teaches jazz in the way of Oscar Peterson and Phineas Newborn Jr.—two jazz moguls. “Sadly, Wray is one of the last such teachers, and the fact that he is still at it after so many years really is a testament to his energy and tenacity.”
These days, Downes contents himself with teaching, cooking, spending time with his wife and kids and playing piano when he wants to. “Been there, done that,” says Downes with a laugh about his jet-setting and musically-busy past.
As he gets up to leave, Downes zips up his winter coat and secures his cloth bucket hat back on his head. He tucks his book back under his arm before walking out the door to go house to play with his dog, play some piano or maybe cook.