The TD Niagara Jazz Festival celebrates Black History Month with upcoming performances at the Hare Wine Company on Niagara Stone Road and Mahtay Cafe in downtown St. Catharines.
Juno-nominated trumpet and flugelhorn player Alexis Baro kicks it off Monday, Feb. 6 at The Hare Wine Company. Sax-man Neil Brathwaite and his band follow at the same location Feb. 20, and the Faith Amour Trio performs at Mahtay on Sunday, Feb. 26.
A highlight of all three events is an opening presentation by social anthropologist and musicologist Wade Pfaff, originally from St. Catharines.
“We really wanted to focus on Black artists for the month of February,” festival co-creator, executive director and artistic director Juliet Dunn tells The Local. “And we’re super excited to have Wade talking about Canadian Black jazz history.”
Pfaff is a research assistant for A Black People’s History of Canada, a three-year project to bring more Black history into Canada’s schools, run out of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He also conducts research for the Centre for Sound Communities, an arts-led social innovation lab at Cape Breton University.
“My research focuses on Canadian Black jazz history before World War II,” Pfaff says on the phone from St. Catharines, where he is visiting with an old school friend. “My PhD that I am working on now covers all across Canada, throughout the United States, the Caribbean and Europe, all the areas where black music came out.”
The guitarist, drummer and bass player goes into a lengthy description of the various sub-genres of jazz music and some of his personal favourite musicians before landing on one of his potential subjects for the February festival events.
“One topic would be Mynie Sutton and the Canadian Ambassadors,” says Pfaff. “He is our greatest hero from the Niagara Region. To me, he is the one who broke all the colour barriers in Canada. He lived and played in Montreal in the 1920s and 1930s. His Canadian Ambassadors were the best of the best. They played from about 1928 until 1941 in every top venue in Canada and the U.S.”
Sutton is enshrined in the city of Niagara Falls Arts and Culture Wall of Fame, soon to find its new home at the under-construction Cultural Hub. The pianist, saxophonist and trumpeter moved back to his hometown after his father passed away, and worked as a welder.
“He slowly got back into music, and then the musician’s union approached him, and asked him to be the co-president of the new integrated union, the first one in southern Ontario,” says Pfaff. “He started a new band called The Casuals. He wrote several songs that are still played today.”
Sutton spent more than 30 years on the executive board of the Region Musicians’ Association, and also founded the Canadian Brotherhood Club of Niagara Falls in 1945, where he acted as president until his death in 1982.
Pfaff is also considering a presentation on women in Canadian jazz and blues, a topic he feels is extremely relevant in relation to Dunn’s role with the TD Niagara Jazz Festival.
“When I left Niagara there certainly wasn’t a jazz festival here,” Pfaff says. “When I found out that the organizer was Black, I thought that was very interesting. It was right before Emancipation Day last year, and she had booked a number of Black artists. I agreed to interview them for a production they were working on.”
The role of music, and in particular jazz in social justice, is another topic near to Pfaff’s heart.
“Musicians often lead the way when it comes to issues of identity, place and individuality,” Pfaff insists. “Music is so infectious that people just can’t stay away. When you start playing music the colour of your skin doesn’t matter anymore. Music is the great harmonizer.”
Pfaff will make his first appearance in Niagara in support of Cuban-born Baro. History is also important to the bandleader, whose 2022 album Mi Raiz, pays tribute to the Cuban musicians and composers who have contributed to bringing the trumpet’s distinctive sound to prominence around the world.
The former member of hard-bop jazz ensemble Kollage moved to Toronto from Havana in 2001 after touring with Buena Vista Social Club superstar singer Omara Portuondo’s band and, at only 19 years old, playing lead trumpet for that country’s National Radio and Television Orchestra.
Mi Raiz is his seventh album and the follow-up to his 2018 release, Sandstorm, which was nominated for a 2019 Juno for Jazz Album of the Year: Solo. The new release begins with the martial, military-style cadence of Campo de Batalla and winds through the conga sounds of Tan Lejos, the festive feel of En Son de Descarga, and the funky, jazzy Timba Jam.
For the Feb. 6 show in Niagara-on-the-Lake he’ll be accompanied by fellow Cuban-Canadians Yoser Rodriguez on bass and Amhed Mitchel on drums, with pianist Jeremy Ledbetter rounding out the quartet. All three played on Mi Raiz, which means that some of that album is likely to take centre stage at the Hare Wine Company.
“We’ll play a mixture of everything,” says Baro. “Each album has something interesting that I like to share. I will play music from at least three or four of my albums. On all my records each song has a different ensemble. We’ll play the numbers that work best with the four-piece band.”
Two weeks later, the Neil Brathwaite Group, led by the saxophonist whose nickname is Bee, plays selections from their 2022 debut album Bee Thankful. The group includes Clark Johnson on bass, pianist Eric Boucher and Wilson Laurencin on drums. Alexis Baro, by the way, guests on one track from Bee Thankful.
As a sideman, Brathwaite has straddled a number of genres, including R&B, jazz, blues, reggae, country, rock and world music, working with artists such as George Clinton, Danilo Perez, Wynton Marsalis, Salome Bey, Molly Johnson, the Headstones and Jacksoul.
The scene for Black History Month shifts to St. Catharines on Sunday, Feb. 26 for a performance by the Faith Amour Trio. The in-demand composer, conductor and vocalist won Best Jazz CD and Best Jazz Vocal at the New Mexico Music Awards for her multilingual (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian) 2013 debut album Bright Eyes.
Amour’s trio will be rounded out by local resident Ross McIntyre on bass and pianist Stu Harrison.
Tickets for all three Black History Month performances are available at niagarajazzfestival.com.