Claude Ranger, Canadian Jazz Legend
by Mark Miller
Tellwell Talent, 2017
reviewed by Alayne McGregor
Does a story need an ending?
I've heard it argued, by authors as prominent as Philip Pullman, that a basic tenet of stories is that they must resolve. And yet in real life, not all stories have a final resolution, and sometimes they are all the more memorable because of that.
As, for example, the story of Canadian jazz drummer Claude Ranger, which jazz journalist Mark Miller recounts in his most recent book. It's a highly readable account which has many resonances with today's jazz scene.
Claude Ranger: Canadian Jazz Legend has no concluding episode because Ranger simply disappeared in 2000, after more than three decades as a notable performer, composer, and influential teacher in Canada. But, as Miller explains in this biography, it makes Ranger's story and his legend all the more compelling – and reflective of Canada's jazz scene, which "went largely undocumented" during most of the time Ranger was performing.
Miller himself has arguably been the major figure in documenting that scene, as a journalist and jazz critic with Toronto's Globe and Mail for 27 years, and the author of many books and articles about Canadian jazz and jazz musicians. For this book, he interviewed dozens of musicians who had performed with and learned from Ranger during his career, as well as drawing from earlier interviews, reviews, and articles by himself and others.
Each chapter is extensively documented with footnotes, and Miller has included a full discography of the albums Ranger played on between 1967 and 1994. That included recordings by prominent Canadian and American musicians: Dave Liebman, Michel Donato, Jane Bunnett, Doug Riley, Moe Koffman, P.J. Perry, Sonny Greenwich, and Don Thompson, among many others.
Miller became acquainted with Ranger when Ranger lived in Toronto. He interviewed him, heard him play, and photographed him (and includes several of these photographs in the book). But, while Miller includes his own impressions occasionally, this story is primarily told through the words of all the other people who performed with, learned from, or were friends with Ranger. It's an account revealed from many angles, giving it more depth and believability.
Ranger cut his teeth in the Quebec and Montreal scene, played for 15 years in Toronto, and ended up in Vancouver. He was self-taught, and he didn't play it safe.
As Toronto drummer Bob McLaren says in the book, “He lived dangerously. He completely sacrificed everything for the muse. So in terms of all of us in the community, we looked up to him. He was an attractive person. And he had the talent to back it up. He was a bit exotic – the cigarette, the French accent, the Quebec flair – and he only talked about music. People wanted to get next to that, to see what it was like to sacrifice yourself and not aspire to the middle class like the rest of us did.”
Ranger's skillful, intense drumming also got him coveted gigs. When Sonny Rollins came to Toronto in 1974, it was Ranger and bassist Michel Donato who were invited to be Rollins' rhythm section. As bassist Kieran Overs said, “It was obvious: who else was going to do that gig, that way? They were the guys.” The Globe and Mail review afterwards said that they were “both in superb form”, while the Toronto Star reviewer suggested that Rollins was “clearly outplayed” by his accompanists. In Coda, reviewer Barry Tepperman noted Ranger's injection of drive into the performances that day, and how he could “play well and stay on his own terms with just about anyone”.
Jazz was Ranger's first love: “to me, my body doesn't want to do anything else. I will play anything, but it seems as though there's nothing else but jazz.” By 1967, he had begun to make his mark in the Montreal scene as a drummer, bandleader, and composer. He could swing in a big band, or he could could write and play avant-garde, piano-less jazz influenced by Ornette Coleman and Archie Shepp.
He was a bit exotic – the cigarette, the French accent, the Quebec flair – and he only talked about music. People wanted to get next to that, to see what it was like to sacrifice yourself and not aspire to the middle class like the rest of us did.
– drummer Bob McLaren describes Claude Ranger
He always played assertively and with authority: his signature style was a clear, resolute cymbal ride, Miller writes. When he moved to Toronto in 1972, he wasn't immediately well-received by the staid Toronto scene. Then-Globe and Mail jazz critic Alastair Lawrie, for example, didn't appreciate the “volcanic nature of Ranger's drumming”, but admitted that “technically it is superb. He appears to be capable of almost infinite variation.”
But he wasn't just a sideman. Throughout his career, Ranger composed jazz pieces, many of which were recorded by groups he played in. He led his own groups, ranging in size from trios to his 19-member Jade Orchestra.
Drummers interviewed by Miller often mentioned the drum exercises Ranger developed – apparently hundreds of pages-worth. He created the exercises as part of his own development, to learn the technical skills he needed. He told a jazz historian that he destroyed the written pages sometime before 1980, but the exercises remained in his head, and he continued to write them out for students. McLaren told Miller that he still uses them today, as do other drummers across Canada – an example of Ranger's long-term influence on Canadian jazz.
More specifically, two prominent Canadian jazz drummers, Dylan van der Schyff and Nick Fraser, both recounted to Miller how they learned from Ranger as teenagers. Van der Schyff described how Ranger became a mentor, giving him encouragement and hints as well as technical lessons, while Fraser told how Ranger showed him the differences between different drummers' ride rhythms and told him about different ways to practice.
The clearest impression I got from the book is how vivid and memorable a character Ranger was. Almost every musician Miller cites has a Ranger story and a Ranger quote.
American saxophonist Dave Liebman, who chose Ranger for a recording and concerts in the 80s, described him as “a very exciting drummer. He was strong. He played, which I liked coming from the guys I'd been playing with. He was enthusiastic. He learned the music. He enjoyed playing. He had a joie de vivre.”
To me, my body doesn't want to do anything else. I will play anything, but it seems as though there's nothing else but jazz.
– Claude Ranger
But Ranger also had difficulties.
He smoked and drank to excess, and he had a very mercurial temperament, which was later diagnosed as bipolar disorder. Fellow musicians tell stories in the book of how someone moving his drums on stage could affect his performance. And he could get easily discouraged.
In 1986, Ranger's quintet beat out four other Toronto groups to compete in the Montreal Jazz Festival's “Concours de Jazz de Montreal”. The prizes in this contest, which was opened to groups across Canada for the first time that year, included a recording on CBC's Jazzimage label and an appearance at the Paris Jazz Festival. The band Ranger put together included saxophonists Rob Frayne and Perry White, trombonist Steve Donald, and bassist Mike Milligan – all of whom have gone on to long musical careers.
In the competition, the quintet played three of Ranger's originals plus the competition test standard, Dizzy Gillespie's “A Night in Tunisia”. As Miller recounts it, they – and the reviewer for La Presse – thought they'd won. Ranger even held a celebration in his hotel room. And then the next day, they learned that the prize had gone to young pianist Jon Ballantyne, even though his trio was “no match for the Ranger quintet”. Ranger was devastated – and the quintet rarely performed together again.
Ranger moved to Vancouver in 1987, and found considerable regard there. By 1989 he was bringing together many local jazz musicians for unpaid weekly rehearsals, and forming a new ensemble he called the Jade Orchestra. The orchestra would play new long-form suites which he was composing, influenced by classical composers like Debussy – very lush, tonal music according to several of the musicians in the orchestra.
On Remembrance Day, 1990, the orchestra played its most ambitious concert to date. But the Vancouver show was attended by longtime Georgia Straight music critic Alex Varty, who wrote a dismissive and strongly negative review of the concert and of Ranger's compositions.
Reading the quotes that Miller includes from that review made me cringe. It seemed designed to wound, rather than to be constructive. I'm not a fan of using caustic sarcasm in any review; some performances deserve to have their flaws pointed out in a negative review, but not to be flayed open.
Unsurprisingly, the review hurt Ranger deeply, according to several people close to him. After having put his heart and soul into the music, he then abandoned the project. The orchestra only played one more show.
I don't remember ever hearing Ranger play live: by the time I was listening to jazz seriously in the late 80s, Ranger had moved to Vancouver, and was, in any case, performing less frequently. It's not easy to find his recorded output, either. Many of the CDs he played on are hard to find. You can hear a few of his performances on YouTube – and they're impressive in their power and use of dynamics – but so much has been lost.
But what surprised me about this book was how many of the musicians whom Miller interviewed that I knew. The majority of them I'd heard perform, and a number of them, like Rob Frayne, François Houle, Nick Fraser, Jane Bunnett, Norman Marshall Villeneuve, and Bernie Senensky, I'd actually interviewed about their work. It showed how diverse, far-reaching, and long-standing Ranger's influence had been on the Canadian jazz scene.
And it's why Miller’s biography is important, because it's not just about Ranger but also about the recent development of jazz in Canada. One thing I really like about Mark Miller's books is how they chronicle highly talented but under-appreciated jazz musicians – and gives them their rightful place. He has chosen the corners of the jazz world which needed extra light, rather than the standard canon, rightly judging that they would be more valuable than another Miles Davis or Duke Ellington bio.
This book makes Ranger, in all his complexity, come alive – perhaps exemplified by his answer when asked in 1986 how how he could find the energy to play in two bands in one night. He replied: “I have to play; who knows if I'll be alive tomorrow!”
Jazz is a very contingent music. Each performance is unique, depending on many external and internal factors. Musicians often float from group to group, or play in different styles in many different groups. Both musicians and listeners are always taking a chance on what they might hear.
That fits Claude Ranger's life, but it doesn't make the last paragraph of this book any less tragic, or less sudden.
At the beginning of November, 2000, without any notice, Ranger walked away from his room in a public housing complex and was never seen again – and with that, the book ends.
It's a memorable close to a memorable story.
Claude Ranger, Canadian Jazz Legend is available as an eBook on the author-controlled Smashwords distribution site. It is also available in bookstores as a trade paperback and hardcover.