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Alison Young and the Ottawa Jazz Festival

Volunteering at the Ottawa Jazz Festivals for three or four years was a fun thing for those times. Volunteering 16 or 20 hours of time got a free pass to go to any of the festival shows and events: A fair trade.

The festivals last for ten days in July. Many famous and legendary musicians attended and performed in those years. The main stage hosts a sparkling train of stars. Some are relatively novice, introducing new sounds, new arrangements, new approaches to the music. Others were already well known by the echoes from the vinyl canyons of 12 inch microgroove records, in layers of years and years and years.

David "Fathead" Newman does his version.

There were many outdoor concerts but the favorite time was the late night jam sessions in a meeting room at the Ramada Inn near Confederation Park. There was no stage. It was about 90 people sitting at tables in a semi-circle around the performers. Many of the sidemen and leaders would show up there, in different combinations. They would combine their instruments, their techniques, their talents in various ways to produce some of the liveliest and interesting music ever heard. But then, that is the unique quality of jazz: It is never the same way twice. It is ever new.

After attending those sessions so many years in a row, memory has begun to blur them into one long session with too many musicians to remember.

Break Time

Host John Geggie always started things with a trio of himself on bass, Nancy Walker piano and Nick Frazer or Joel Haynes on drums. Then the day’s performers wandered in, some carrying instruments, some just a drink. The regular outdoor concerts were on three stages, all day for ten days. Then the jams went on each night, most of the night.

John Pizzarelli,
no socks, just jammin'.
He was fun.

At various times the jam sessions included, Ravi Coltrane, members of the Basie Band, John Pizzarelli, a half dozen from Sandoval’s band, a couple from the Yellow Jackets or Maria Schneider’s band. Sometimes the room was half musicians. Those who wanted, played. Those who didn’t listened. Some years included Jane Bunnett, Lavay Smith, Cleo Lane, Lou Donaldson, Brad Mehldau, Nnenna Freelon, Masekela and Hassan Hakmoun and his sinter and heck, too many, too many, too many to remember.

There were many memorable performances and musicians, but none, NONE, sticks any more than one young girl, a local from Ottawa. Alison Young usually strode into the room, sat for a bit with her attitude and her pout. She examined the scene, absorbing. John Geggie would finally coax her to sit in. She would eventually give in and play a set.

It was always a treat. She borrowed an alto sax or sometimes brought her own. She could fit in any combination group but sounded best with just Geggie, Walker and Haynes backing her.

Alison Young
Now here is what was so memorable about her: This lady here plays a fine lot of jazz. It is one of those incongruities that the mind has trouble digesting. The stun is witnessing phrasing and technique indicating decades of practice and study, coming from a girl too young to have done any of that. She played alto with an authority and command that was beyond her short years. She was too young to have learned those changes, those runs.

Watching Alison Young perform with the facility and inventiveness of a much more mature musician makes the mind grasp for explanations. She must have simply been born with the experience; she couldn’t develop it in such a short time, could she? Are we discussing reincarnation here? Did a valuable, restless, ethereal piece of some long-gone jazz musician attach itself to her aura when she was born? Or maybe all of it? Are we hearing Parker, Desmond, Pepper? Trumbauer?

The professional jazz musicians in the room would pause and stare and then look at each other. They heard it too. This kid here has some fine chops.

One of the following years, while strolling an Ottawa side street, the sounds of jazz came tumbling through a pub door. There was a live five piece band in the corner and yes, it was Alison Young on alto. Seeing her in a working environment enhanced the appreciation of her abilities. The stroll was postponed until the set was over.

In 2001 there was a little additional volunteer work at Judy Humenick’s Jazz Camp, then held at Christie Lake near Perth, Ontario. Several seasoned jazz musicians such as Rob Frayne, Floyd Standifer, Frank Lozano and Nancy Walker assembled at the lake side campground cabins with a number of jazz hopefuls and students just to rub shoulders and have clinic sessions and then, a final concert. They were short some kitchen help so that’s where the volunteers filled in. During the day the musicians divided up into groups, percussion, vocal, reeds and worked with the pro on their techniques. If one wandered anywhere near the reed session, Alison Young could be heard, unmistakably.
Alison Young
On the last day of the camp, a collective concert was given. Spouses, friends, parents and the volunteers gathered in the main building and fought for seats. Alison’s mother attended and chatted a bit. She could be seen at once as a proud mother of a very talented girl and frustrated mother of a young woman with a mind of her own. I told her that I thought her daughter was a genius. An apprehensive glint passed quickly from her face as it sunk in that I was sincere. Then she smiled and said, “Well, she’s a handful.” I never saw her again.

Each group performed what they had been rehearsing. Alison dominated her set easily. Then the professionals and teachers jammed one last time.

The pros all had CD’s to sell. The volunteers ran a brisk business at the CD sales table. And the Jazz Camp was over for another year.

At the last Ottawa Jazz Festival attended it was learned that Alison would be moving to Toronto to continue studies. Here is another link about the VERNON ISAAC MEMORIAL SCHOLARSHIP(VIMS).

You can hear her by going to her Myspace Page and clicking on this treatment of “Oh Lonesome Me.” Alison is heard in the sax solo at the end. This sound is perhaps somewhat in the style of the solo it Lenny Picket(?) in the SNL closing theme. Moving and iconic in the very least. I ranted about this artist previously here...

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  • At Friday, July 13, 2007 2:41:00 PM, Blogger Twilight said…

    Good stuff a/j !

    I like your comment about reincarnation. It's a tempting theory for situations like this - and regarding any child prodigy, in fact.

    Being such an experienced jazz enthusiast you're in a very good position to judge Alison's abilities, many less experienced listeners may not appreciate how special she is.

    I'll link your blog piece to one I'm intending to post on Sunday, there's a common thread!

  • At Saturday, July 14, 2007 9:01:00 AM, Blogger Twilight said…

    Further to my comment yesterday- here's another.

    You've been tagged to write about 5 to 10 songs which have had an impact on your life. (See my blog for more info.) You can decline to join in of course, should you not fancy the challenge. ;-)

  • At Wednesday, July 18, 2007 12:45:00 AM, Blogger kitty.bomb said…

    Oh my goodness.. now three people have sent me here.. thank you for the kind words - I don't really know what to say, other than this has inspired me to get out to more jams, and get back to my old practice regime! Did we meet at the jazz camp? I'm honoured to be compared to my favourite saxophone players, though I hardly feel I deserve it.. this may be the encouragement I needed to finally get around to putting sessions together for my own CD.. so thank you! :)

  • At Wednesday, July 18, 2007 10:27:00 AM, Blogger anyjazz said…

    Good for you. Keep your creativity alive. If you do decide to assemble a CD album, you know you are guaranteed of at least one sale.

    No we didn’t meet formally. And there is no reason you should remember seeing me. I did chat with your mother a bit though I doubt she will remember it. You came over and asked your mother to buy you a CD while we were talking.

    Keep up the good work.



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