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Montreal, the blues and jazz mecca of my earlier days

Updated: May 1, 2022

I’ve been lucky enough to be a baby boomer weaned on the best rock, blues, and jazz music the world has ever known, especially in the 70s and 80s, in my case, back when Montreal was a hotbed of all the great performers, appearing in small intimate venues.

It was a city that made them accessible through many old-school venues.

Those that stick in my mind are the Esquire Show Bar on Stanley street, Rocky Rockhead’s on St-Antoine at Mountain street, and the Rising Sun on Ste-Catherine street west.

The Esquire was a dark and dingy place, with the insides painted primarily black.

Featured were the likes of Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, and Howlin’ Wolf, to name but three of the acts I caught among a myriad of blues and jazz performers that appeared there.

Admission in the seventies was a mere $2 cover charge with a one-drink minimum, which was $3-4 if memory serves.

Located downtown, the Rising Sun Celebrity Jazz Club was run by a character called DouDou Boicel, a Guyanese immigrant to Canada.

Boicel was a significant influence on the foundation of the Montreal International Jazz Festival, having invited the likes of Montreal’s own Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone, Ray Charles, Art Blakey, Muddy Waters, Bill Evans, Big Mama Thornton, and Dexter Gordon to name but a handful.

It was much along the same lines as the Esquire but with some neon lighting and linoleum. The joint with the slogan “Jazz isn’t dead” featured jazz, blues, and reggae acts. One of those I caught was a double bill with Dexter Gordon and Big Mama Thornton in her last days with her unique renditions of Little Red Rooster, Ball ‘N’ Chain, and Hound Dog, a song she was the first to record in 1952, three years before Elvis Presley. Of course, Ball ‘N’ Chain became Janis Joplin’s signature hit in the late sixties.

At the Rising Sun, Big Mama performed sitting on what looked like a chrome kitchen chair while belting back drink after drink after drink.

Last but not least, Rocky Rockhead’s Paradise, aka Rockhead Paradise.

Operated by Rufus Rockhead from the fifties to the eighties, the club was built with an open second floor overlooking the stage. The club held a limited number of patrons, maybe seventy or eighty.

Everyone who was anyone in the jazz and blues world played there, including Art Blakey, Nat King Cole, and Louis Armstrong.

I went only once, but that night, for a $10 cover charge, I sat right in the front row nearly within touching distance of Cab Calloway.

Calloway, dressed in white from head to toe and with only four songs, literally blew the roof off the place with Reefer Man, Jumpin’ Jive, and especially with his final signature number, Minnie The Moocher.

Part of my memories of that night was that I was the only white person in the club, which made a lasting impression on me back then.

I was, after all, in my early twenties, a very white French-Canadian as yet untravelled who had never experienced anything like it.

So the days of small venues featuring world-class artists are gone now, of course, but remain seared in the memory of those lucky enough to have witnessed them back when Montreal was a mecca for such incredible shows.


Excerpt from my upcoming e-book “Recollections from my time on earth” - Snackable short stories



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