Nelson Symonds remembered
While rock guitar seems often to be about loud, egomaniacal posturing, the jazz guitarist is a much more subtle beast. The epitome of the understated, modest yet enormously talented jazz guitarist is Montreal’s own Nelson Symonds, whose passing on October 11 gives us reason to re-evaluate his work. Symonds was a sophisticated, though under-exposed artist whose music was deep and heartfelt.
Tributes are being written across the country. Many are speaking about Symond’s playing, including Ottawa-based guitarist Roddy Elias who was recently quoted as saying that upon his first hearing Symonds’ guitar, “on an emotional, expressive, spiritual, soul level I knew I was in the presence of someone truly extraordinary.” From what I gathered about the man, this greatness was the result of a humble approach to his art and the strong work ethic that governed his life, aspects that are documented in the 1984 film by Mary Ellen Davis, Nelson Symonds, Guitarist.
Born in Halifax in 1933, Symonds left home in 1951 to work as a musician in Sudbury, then toured the States with vaudeville and carnival troupes before heading to la Belle Province in the mid-50s. In an interview I had with him in 1983, he told me that his first jazz gig “was in 1958 in Montreal, at the Vieux Moulin on Sherbrooke Street near Bleury. That was my first legitimate jazz gig, although I’d improvised before in the Black vaudeville shows.”
Once settled in the Montreal area, Symonds mainly stayed put: “I only played in the States once, jazz wise. My only jazz gig in the US was in Milwaukee in 1960. I was there at a club for nine months.” Symonds was a tireless club performer until he was slowed down by heart trouble in his later years. “I’m supposed to be starting a job tonight at Mingus on Bishop for a couple of weeks,” he told me that spring afternoon in 1983. He also told me about how he had spent “three years at Rockhead’s Paradise [on Saint Antoine]. Before that I was up north with Charlie Biddle for six years, from ’71 until ’77,” he said.
Although he played at most of Montreal’s Jazz clubs in his time, and performed with many top name jazz artists (people like Rahsaan Roland Kirk, John Coltrane and Blue Mitchell to name a few) he didn’t record until late in his career, and made only two CDs as leader and as many as a sideman on saxophonist Dave Turner’s dates. “I really never thought about it cause I always got a chance to play here in Montreal,” he said by way of explanation. “I was at the Black Bottom for five years from ’63 till about ’68 and La Boheme from ’68 till ’71 and then we were up North.”
Neither was studio work his bag. “I’m not into that. I’m self-taught. I’m not a sight reader,” he said. He also preferred the intimacy and the flexibility of the club. “Usually I’ve been in a place for a long time. So I really didn’t care about recording if I had a chance to play. A lot of people ask me the same thing, but, I don’t know, it’s not something I really thought about ’cause I always got a chance to play.”
The change in the jazz scene in Montreal in the 1980s that saw the fall of the jazz club in favour of the festival format meant sporadic engagements. But it also meant a chance to play with international celebrities for a large audience, like Symond’s opening set for a Ray Charles concert in the St. Denis Theatre at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. “We’re not used to that,” he said. “It’s not like playing at a night club. Doing concerts like that. You know you’ve only got an hour shot. You have to be ready for that. The main players are geared to do that, and they do a lot of it. We’re used to playing in clubs. You try to get yourself up for that. A lot of times you’re playing at a new club and you open up the first night and you really feel great the first set, but you don’t plan on that. If you don’t feel great that first set you know you’ve still got a couple more shows to play. So sometimes I have a tendency to be a little bit uptight, but I tried to be as loose as possible on that concert with Ray Charles. I never really played in front of that many people, that’s another thing. So I was pretty tense. Everybody that knows us knows that. Under those circumstances it was adequate. Most of the time was for Ray Charles. But anyway, it wasn’t too bad.”
Most of his fans would say, rather, that the music of Nelson Symonds was some of the finest jazz you could hear in this city and anywhere else, for that matter.