Ed Bickert (By Steve Wallace)
Posted by Chris Donnelly


By Steve Wallace, for CBC Music

Steve Wallace is one of the leading jazz bass players in Canada. He played extensively with now retired Canadian jazz guitar legend, Ed Bickert. Bickert, who turns 80 on Nov. 29, is famously private, which makes Wallace’s insights into the man and the musician a real treat to read.

Ed Bickert functioned as a powerful aesthetic compass and edit button on the Canadian jazz scene, a kind of jazz bullshit antidote. Whether he was on the bandstand with you, or just in the audience with those radar ears and forbidding eyebrows, you felt Ed’s presence, sharpened up, and were a lot less inclined to indulge in any musical wanking.

Ed’s from the west and has an aspect of the Marlboro Man about him. In fact, that was one of his nicknames, reinforced by decades of “professional” smoking. If you think of jazz as a western and Toronto as Dodge City, then Ed was our Gary Cooper in High Noon.

As a player, Ed was unique: the intense focus and swing of his playing, his beautiful, clear tone, pithy and graceful solos, great feeling for the blues and his deadly sense of chord voicing and sensitive comping.

Though a very quiet and private man, he always wore his heart on his sleeve when he was playing, eyes closed in concentration. He meant every note he played — a whole lot of feeling and soulfulness came out of that battered-looking Fender Telecaster. His playing could be lyrical, sophisticated and elegant, but there was also some grit and earthiness there.

Above all, his ears were legendary; he heard absolutely everything, even when they were stuffed with cotton balls, as they often were. This made playing with him scary, pleasurable though it was. Whenever Rob McConnell’s big band, the Boss Brass, was rehearsing a new arrangement and Rob wasn’t sure about a note on a chord he’d voiced out for the horns, he’d always ask Ed, who’d never written a chart in his life.

Ed also had (and has, although he’s been retired since 2001) a huge repertoire, knows hundreds and hundreds of songs inside out. Years ago, Ed, drummer Jerry Fuller and I were playing a gig at Toronto’s Bourbon Street backing up Scott Hamilton and Warren Vaché. Scott and Warren were the vanguard of the new “young mainstream” movement and they played a lot of older, obscure tunes. Some of these I knew, and Ed did a great job of navigating me through some of the ones I didn’t.

One night before the first set, we were sitting around and Scott said he felt like playing “I Love You Samantha,” an esoteric Cole Porter tune that Bing Crosby sang to Grace Kelly in High Society. It was the first and only time I’d ever seen Ed stumped by a tune, but it wasn’t that surprising, nobody around town ever played it. What was surprising was that by some fluky miracle, I did know it. I offered to jot out the chord changes on the back of a paper placemat so we could play it, and Ed reluctantly agreed. He did his usual masterful job of comping armed with this scratchy chart, but when it came time for a guitar solo, he shook his head and pointed to me: “You got it.”

I asked Ed about this after the set and he said he just wouldn’t play a solo on a tune from the chords alone, he had to know the melody otherwise he felt he was flying blind, couldn’t hear anything meaningful to play.

Ed’s fastidiousness in this regard was part of a perfectionist, self-critical streak. Sometimes, even if you’re in shape and really playing a lot, you go through slumps as a jazz player, stretches where you just can’t seem to do anything right. I experienced a bad one once during a run of six straight weeks playing with Ed. My pitch and sound were all over the place, I was struggling with the instrument, then my time started to become tentative. My confidence and nerves were shot; it was getting so I almost dreaded playing.

On a break one night, I was sitting at a table with Ed, drinking coffee. I was really down, close to tears, wanted to unburden myself to him and apologize for all the blunders and bum notes of the past few weeks. Before I could say anything though, Ed fixed me with those penetrating eyes, his deeply lined face grim. In his clear voice he said, “Steve, have you ever gotten to the point where you can’t stand the way you sound anymore? That’s where I am now, and man, it’s really bad news.”

At first, I thought he’d read my mind and was just saying this to buck me up. But I looked at him, astonished, and no, he really meant it, he was absolutely dead serious. It scared me stiff, the hairs on my arms and the back of my neck stood up. If a musician as great as Ed Bickert can’t stand the way he sounds, then what do my worries amount to, what’s to become of my woeful self?

This really did happen, I’ll never forget it, and what I took from it is that sometimes you just have to suck up the bad times and hang in there, it’s all you can do. As the comedian Denis Leary once said, “Life is tough, get a helmet.”

I was very lucky to have played so much with Ed and learned an awful lot from him, mostly by example since he was never one to say too much. Mostly, what I learned from him is the importance of clarity and simplicity, both in playing the bass and music in general.

Ed’s message of simplicity was further reinforced in an experience at a club in Ottawa, and for the last number of a long first set, Scott called “Tickle Toe.” I love that tune, but I was pretty tired, and it’s a tough one on bass. We started and, being worn out, I just played very simple notes, sticking to mostly roots and fifths, focusing on the beat. I thought I was playing pretty lame stuff, but the music felt great anyway.

After quite a few choruses, the last thing I wanted to do was play a bass solo, but Murphy’s law applied and I had to. Out of gas, I just played simple riff-like melodic phrases interspersed with some brief walking lines. I noticed Ed was really listening, buoying me along. When we were done, I was a bit sheepish and discouraged, thinking to myself, Oh well, better luck next time.

Uncharacteristically, Ed turned around to me and said “Yeah, Steve. You laid down all those good notes and time for a bunch of choruses, then still had enough left to play a good solo. Nice goin’.”

My jaw dropped, and I stammered my thanks, thinking, Huh? What’s he talking about? I didn’t do anything special, I just played a bunch of really simple, basic — aaahh. Right. Keep it simple. You’re not in this alone, give and you will get back. Embrace the obvious, end the mystery. For this, and a whole lot more, I’d like to say, thanks, Ed.

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