In a fifty-year career, Norman Marshall Villeneuve has brought the message of bebop to Canada.

The 76-year-old drummer, who brings his Jazz Message to Merrickville this Sunday afternoon, has been across the border many times, including playing for months in the United States with his cousin, pianist Oliver Jones. And he almost got to go on tour with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

Norman Marshall Villeneuve at the Pilot in Toronto (photo by Miguel Mata; provided by the artist)
Norman Marshall Villeneuve at the Pilot in Toronto (photo by Miguel Mata; provided by the artist)

But, although he tells young jazz musicians to go south to build their careers, Villeneuve has built his just fine staying in Montreal and Toronto, playing with almost every major jazz musician in their scenes, and many international touring stars.

As he reminiscences, the names and stories just pile up: Jackie McLean, Ray Draper, Julius Watkins, Charlie Rouse. Blossom Dearie, Lorenzo Conyers of the Ink Spots, Paul Gonsalves, Cat Anderson. Peter Leitch, Sadiq Hakim, Barry Harris. He was called in to play three nights at the Chicken Deli in Toronto with saxophonist Sonny Stitt when “nothing was happening” with the first night's drummer – and “we just hit it off like good friends right away”.

And the Canadian musicians who built the jazz scenes in Montreal and Ottawa: pianist Oliver Jones, bassist Charlie Biddle, guitarist Nelson Symonds, saxophonist Vernon Isaac.

In Merrickville, listeners will hear the results of that experience – and how it's taught him to keep the music understandable and what “people want to hear.”

"Art Blakey is my hero"

Villeneuve's role model – right from the beginning – has been drummer Art Blakey and his band the Jazz Messengers. “He's my hero, my mentor.”

“When I was about 10, 11 years old, I heard Art Blakey on a vinyl record, [A Night] At Birdland. This was just before he started to name his group Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers. At that time he had Lou Donaldson on alto and the great piano player who just passed away last month. Horace Silver, and Doug Watson was on bass. The famous Clifford Brown [on trumpet] who died too young.”

What grabbed him was the music's “drive: it was bebop jazz. Ever since I started playing, I've just kept the music moving. And then after that I listened to some of the other great drummers – Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones. Tony Williams came along and blew everybody's mind away. [laughs]”

Just after Art Blakey died in October, 1990, Villeneuve formed The Canadian Jazz Messengers, with musicians who were then just starting out on the Toronto jazz scene: “I had Dave Restivo on piano, Mike Downes on bass, I had three, four trumpet players in that band, but the first one I had was Joe Allen, and Ken Fornetran on alto saxophone. And [on] tenor saxophone was a very young kid, I think he was just about 19, his name was Grant Stewart. I formed that band as fast as possible because I knew those five kids could play their butts off. I knew that all five of them would play what I wanted them to play, which was Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers music.”

The idea was to “keep that message moving” after Blakey's death by playing his style of music.

“We put that together in three weeks, rehearsed. Whatever tunes I wanted to do, the guys would get together and write them up right away. So by the first week of November, we had our first gig lined up.”

About a year later, he changed the band's name to Norman Marshall Villeneuve's Jazz Message, at the request of Blakey's daughter.

A very thick book of musicians

He's continued playing off and on with the musicians in that first band, but for many years now, Villeneuve hasn't actually had a regular band. Instead, he's hired a varying mix of musicians for each show, including many young musicians. That's again a tribute to Blakey, who was always providing opportunities for young talent.

“I have many, many musicians in my book. I have a book that looks like a telephone book, a thick one. But I enjoy all kinds of players. [I'll hire someone to play a noon-hour gig] and then in the next two weeks I'll have somebody else. I book them all the time: somebody new. To play with somebody old.”

Starting out with piano, tap-dancing, and finally drums

Villeneuve was given that chance himself, by major musicians on the Montreal jazz scene, in the late 50s and 60s. Growing up in the Ste-Henri area of Montreal, he started off playing the piano, with lessons from Oscar Peterson's sister, Daisy.

He also got lessons in another type of rhythm, starting at age 8: “My foster brother was a tap-dance teacher. And he's still teaching, and he's 81 years old now!”

But after two years of piano, he realized what he really wanted to play was drums. “So when I was 14, my brother bought a set – well, he put a down-payment on a set of drums – and brought them home. And he said, 'Here's your birthday present!'. So I was the happiest kid around. At that time, I was so happy that I'm tellin' ya – I cried! I cried when he brought them drums. I should have been laughing!”

He bought jazz records – “that's where most of my money went, on records” – and “played and played. By the time I was 16, I was playing in nightclubs. Some of the famous musicians around town here at that time would call me to say I got a concert to do, or a TV, or something to do. That was with a lot of guys 20, 25 years older than myself.”

His mentors included Charlie Biddle, who would “pick me up on Saturday evenings at home and my mother used to say, 'You make sure you take care of my boy and bring him back!'”. They would play in small suburban clubs “and I'd come home with $20 in my pockets, and I was rich!"

He played in show bands run by Vernon Isaac at the club Rockhead’s Paradise, “then all of the sudden Nelson [Symonds] said, 'Hey Norm, I need a drummer'. So I started working some times at the Black Bottom on Ste. Antoine Street.”

It was a time when musicians could play for six or seven nights a week at clubs like Café la Bohème on Guy Street, for three years at a time. “The more we played the better we got.”

Touring the United States

In the mid-60s, he joined his cousin, Oliver Jones, in the Ken Hamilton Showband, with Kenny Hamilton, the vocalist, for which Jones was doing the arrangements and leading the band. In mid-November of 1965, he, Hamilton, and Jones went to Miami and played the Americano Hotel for nine months, followed shortly afterwards by 11 months at the Americano Hotel in Puerto Rico.

Coming back in early 1967, “we had two weeks in New York. I had decided I wanted to come back home because I had a steady job offer and good money. I said, 'I think I've had enough of the road. I'm going to go back home.'”

But later that year he got an offer he couldn't refuse, courtesy of Cootie Williams, a trumpeter in Duke Ellington's Orchestra. When the orchestra was playing in Montreal for Expo 67, Williams came looking for Villeneuve at the club where he was playing.

“So I was happy to see him, and we shook hands and hugged, you know. And he said the Duke's looking for a good drummer, what he said was a good 'baaaad' drummer.”

He went to see the orchestra the next day, was introduced to Ellington and his son Mercer, and was invited down to Boston for a try-out, in order to sub for regular drummer Sam Woodyard who was off for 6 months.

“We went to a place called Lennie's on the turnpike, about a 20, 25 minute drive from the hotel in Boston. So I sat in for the second set, and played, and they all liked it, especially the guys that I knew very well.”

“So they said well, listen, what we're gonna do we're gonna send you some papers. You sign them and send them back. They took me the next morning back to the airport and I came home all happy. I was a happy kid. I was joining the Duke Ellington band! So I got the papers, sent them back, and then they sent me some more papers. That took a month by then. So finally in the fifth, sixth week after, they sent me another letter saying they were having problems trying to get a Canadian to come into the States and join the band. So my heart just dropped.”

It turned out that getting Villeneuve a visa to play in the U.S. was the stumbling block. “A visa was probably the most important thing that I thought would be so easy to get.”

Making it in Canada, instead of the United States

Many Canadian musicians Villeneuve has played with – for example, pianist Gordon Webster or guitarist Peter Leitch or saxophonist Grant Stewart – are now living in the U.S.

“I give the Canadian musicians my blessings and I always say I hope everything works out for you. Because that is where you will make it. You'll never make it in Canada, you've got to go to the States.”

But is Villeneuve the exception to the rule, by staying in Canada?

“Well, I always felt if you're going to go to the States, you can't go empty-handed or with empty pockets. And I didn't want to go down there looking for a place and sometimes there's so many bad stories – you can't leave your instrument. And that terrified me, you know. And a lot of things happened after midnight.”

“I worked in New York just before I left Kenny Hamilton and Oliver [Jones]. I went from my gig right around the corner to the hotel. I didn't want to hang out at night-time. I was too scared. It was terrifying the things that happened there sometimes.”

But at the same time, he said, the market is limited in cities like Montreal and Toronto, with only “the same three, four clubs” and restaurants that close after a few months.

In 1974, Villeneuve moved to Toronto in search of more gigs, though they were initially slow to show up. But he ended up playing regularly in every major jazz venue in town – George's Spaghetti House, the Rex, the Pilot, the Westbury Hotel, and many more – and running jam sessions as well.

While he was in Toronto, he played with pianist Robi Botos, whom he met just after Botos arrived in Canada. Botos had heard about a jam Villeneuve was running, and came to introduce himself. “So Robi more or less became one of my favourite piano players. I gave him a lot of work, I used to have him sometimes two times a week, three times a week because I just enjoyed his playing so much.”

In 2013, Villeneuve moved back to Montreal, partly because of “long periods of time when I wasn't working. And I got tired of backing up singers.”

He knew George Durst, the owner of the House of Jazz club. “we had nice conversation about three years ago, and he mentioned [in a deep voice] 'If you come up my way, I give you a job at my House of Jazz.' [laughs]. So my wife and I, we just got married last year, we were talking before and [I said] I think I'd like to go back home. Whatever you'd like to do, babe.”

Villeneuve now plays Friday and Saturday nights at the new House of Jazz location in Laval, with an ever-rotating list of musicians. “At my age now, I'm just happy and so glad that I got a little jazz gig. It can last for as long as I live maybe.”

In Merrickville: Art Blakey tunes and more approachable music

In Merrickville, Villeneuve will play “jazz. Jazz standards. Music that the people will understand, not way-out stuff.”

The three other Montreal musicians he's bringing along are a mix of people he's played with frequently and infrequently. He only played with saxophonist Dave Turner for the first time in the last few weeks, for example, despite knowing him for more than 20 years.

On the other hand, he's played off and on with bassist Eric Lagacé for the last decade, both in Oliver Jones' groups and in his own. “He's just such a fantastic bass player and he's a strong bass player. And when he plays, he's happy. I like exciting bass players. If you're going to be on the bandstand with me, you don't come just tinkling a few notes and that. You have to be a good bass player. And the thing that I like about him: he can bow! He can take his bow and do anything. He's classically trained, too. You can put a tempo up there, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, and he can bow the tune for you. I love his playing.”

Villeneuve met Swiss-born pianist Félix Stüssi after Stüssi hitch-hiked up from New Orleans to Toronto. The friends' house Stüssi first stayed at was next door to Villeneuve's house, and “I have a piano in my house. So he used to come over and we used to have a little jam! And then we didn't see each other for quite a few years.”

Their set-list will include pieces made famous by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: for example, “Night in Tunisia”.

“A famous tune that Art always played in his group was “Moanin'” [by Bobby Timmons]. It gets people clapping their hands and stomping their feet. And shaking whatever else there is to shake.”

“A couple of tunes by Elvin Jones, Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan. Freddy Hubbard. “Caravan”. How many tunes can you fit in 90 minutes?”

And he hoped the audience would stomp and clap, “if they feel the music. We'll be playing stuff that most people want to hear.”

    – Alayne McGregor

Norman Marshall Villeneuve's Jazz Message performs at Merrickville's Jazz Fest at 2 p.m. Sunday, October 19, at the Merrickville United Church.

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Full disclosure: Merrickville's Jazz Fest arranged a billet for Alayne McGregor and Brett Delmage to make it possible for us to report more from the festival during the festival.