When Paul Tobey sits at the piano at the Hare Wine Company Monday, Jan. 23 for his TD Niagara Jazz Festival performance, his comeback will officially be on.
More than 20 years ago, the Juno-nominated jazz pianist and composer was forced to walk away from a renowned musical career when he was diagnosed with severe tendonitis in both forearms. In addition, he began to suffer from tinnitus, a debilitating condition for any musician.
“The doctor at the musician’s clinic assessed me and told me I couldn’t play for the foreseeable future,” Tobey tells The Local. “My arms were blown up when I played.”
“The pain moved around to his back,” his wife, Nancy Houle adds. “We’d be at the hotel after a gig and I couldn’t get him off the floor. We would have to call a doctor to give him a shot so he could even move.”
Tobey admits that over the years he had developed some bad habits at the piano. He played with his back bent over the keyboard, comparing his posture to that of legendary pianist Bill Evans, known for his work with his own trio and on the Miles Davis’ album Kind of Blue.
To that point, the graduate of both Mohawk College and Concordia University music programs had recorded a number of albums. His 2001 Arkadia Records collection Street Culture, featuring accompaniment by Mike Murley on tenor sax, bassist Jim Vivian and drummer Terry Clarke, earned him a Juno nomination.
Around this time Tobey looked back on his Concordia degree, when he minored in computer studies. Houle pointed out to her husband how successful they had been selling Paul’s music online. They were early pioneers of the effective use of search engine optimization before anyone knew what that phrase meant.
Inspired by a number of self-help books that were given to the couple by a friend, Tobey borrowed $3,100 to take a five-day course called Train the Trainer in Vancouver.
“I went to learn how to speak,” says Tobey. “I never had any fear, any stage fright, because I was a performer. But there I learned how to get an audience, how to talk to an audience, how to engage them 100 per cent of the time, and without a piano.”
Tobey and Houle were living in Toronto at the time. They rented a room at the Arts and Letters Club and began to offer seminars for fellow musicians and artists. Called Success Tracks for Artists, they would offer tips to help them more effectively sell their work.
“The musicians and artists started bringing their managers,” Houle says. “And then the record labels started coming. Then curators for arts organizations, and they started bringing business people.”
So the couple shifted once again, renaming their sessions to Training Business Pros, and began to focus solely on that, coaching business people on successful internet marketing.
“Nobody was doing that at the time,” Tobey says. “There was nothing anywhere. We were the first training company in Canada to offer it. We had several courses that we offered, intertwining personal development and marketing. It wasn’t just the skills, but intrinsic motivation, too. And it took off.”
The success of the business, combined with his physical issues, led to Tobey packing in his performing career. His last concert was in 2004. Since then he has helped thousands of companies across North America to generate tens of millions in new sales.
But two things happened to get Paul in front of a crowd next Monday.
The first occurred in 2016, when someone contacted Nancy to ask if Paul would play two songs for motivational speaker Bob Proctor’s celebration of life at New York City’s Carnegie Hall.
“Paul always said in his seminars that his big dream was to play at Carnegie Hall,” Houle tells The Local. “Someone in Bob Proctor’s office must have heard it and decided to give Paul his dream.”
He told a very small bit of his story and played two songs at the prestigious concert venue, including one from his original composition The Road to Santiago Suite, about his spiritual walk along Spain’s Camino de Santiago. He received a standing ovation.
Then, the couple’s only child, 25-year-old son Adrian, who had followed in his father’s footsteps with musical talent on the trumpet and in both of his parent’s footsteps as the owner of a successful technology business of his own, started trying to convince Paul it was time to return to music.
For three summers the family had rented a small Niagara-on-the-Lake waterfront house so that Adrian could enroll in the town’s junior sailing school when he was a pre-teen. A few years ago Adrian and his fiancee, Allysha, familiar with the area, bought a home in Niagara Falls.
When the pandemic hit, Tobey and Houle decided to discontinue most of what they had been doing with their business. They shut down their Toronto office and bought a house off Lakeshore Road in NOTL.
Adrian, meanwhile, had joined the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce, and met Jazz Festival founder Juliet Dunn.
Dunn knew of Tobey, and even discovered that Houle, who used to book talent for venues in the Middle East, once arranged a gig in Abu Dhabi for her late husband, Peter Shea. She immediately asked Adrian if his father would be interested in performing for her Twilight Jazz and Blues Series, and the booking was made.
“It was like it was just meant to be,” Tobey adds in an email. “I’m very grateful to (Dunn) for affording me this opportunity to get back up on a stage. It’ll be a special concert. It’s a privilege that I get to share this performance with new bandmates, new friends, old friends and jazz lovers.”
Since that Carnegie Hall performance, Tobey has been slowly working on getting his arms back in shape. While still in Toronto, he began a popular and successful YouTube channel called Jazzmentl, offering instruction in jazz piano via online videos. The couple is almost finished building their studio in their new NOTL home, where they continue to shoot Jazzmentl segments.
“As he’s training the viewers, doing the tutorials,” Houle says, “he’s been retraining himself. It’s given him a purpose to be at the piano and train. You can’t go through an hour or so worth of playing without getting your arms back in shape.”
“As I started making those tutorials, I started reinitializing my interest in learning music,” Tobey adds. “And as I’m playing and recording now every day, I just woke up and realized I need to get out and find an audience once again.”
The audience at Monday’s show will enjoy Tobey’s first full performance in almost 20 years. He’ll be concentrating on some of his favourites from the Great American Songbook, with selections from Oscar Peterson, Ramsey Lewis and Bach’s Goldberg Variations thrown into the mix. Tobey will be joined by Rob McBride and Adam Fielding, on bass and drums respectively.
Fourteen-year-old pianist Kai Oszlai will perform an opening set.
Tickets are $39 and are available at niagarajazzfestival.com.