Jazz Through the Ages: African-Canadian Impact on Canadian Identity
Considered for millennia as the one universal language, music has been shaping and defining Canadian identity for centuries. As the fourth largest visible minority group in Canada (“Visible minority groups”), African-Canadians have contributed significantly to this language of hope and inspiration, and deserve to be recognized for their extraordinary accomplishments. Through rhythm and passion, the first slaves that brought their song oversees, those who developed Canadian jazz music, and those who continue to keep this Canadian tradition alive have unequivocally shaped our musical history and identity.
In 1709 when King Louis XIV first authorized the ownership of slaves in ‘New France’, there were approximately 2,000 slaves in Canada, and that number would only rise (Bessière). To retain as much of their cultural and religious identity as possible, the sounds of worship took the ‘New France’ by storm. As many slaves went about their daily activities, song was heard. It was a means of communication, of solidarity, and of unity. However, this love for music was not felt in such a magnitude by many Canadians; in 1785, so-called “Negro Frolicks”, or public musical performances, were banned in Nova Scotia, and yet the music persevered (“Black History Canada”). Though numerous names have been lost in the sands of time, several titles continue to have an impact today, such as “Follow the Drinking Gourd”, “Wade in the Water”, and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” (“Music”).
Appearing in cabarets and on vaudeville stages in the early 20th century, the earliest jazz musicians shaped our musical landscape and brought Canadians to the theatre in droves with tears in their eyes. Reginald “Harry” Broughton, a self-taught Quebecois pianist and composer with a knack for improvisation, is believed to have been the first ever Canadian jazz musician (“Harry Thomas”). His melodic interpretations of silent films were an inspiration other jazz musicians of the day, such as his protégé, Willie Eckstein (Litchfield 187). Eckstein, at the age of 12, received a piano scholarship to McGill University and was the first to perform on live radio in North America and record his own music. His talent was such that he was quickly dubbed “Mr. Fingers”—such that many Canadians came to the theatre not to observe the show, but to hear his performance. He was considered too short to serve in the military, and therefore put the entirety of his efforts into composing war songs to boost morale, and songs of worship to encourage faith and patriotism (Moogk). His talents drew the attention of even Queen Elizabeth II on her royal tour of Canada in 1959 from which he received letters of thanks from Buckingham Palace, Governor General Vincent Massey and Prime Minister John Diefenbaker (“Willie Eckstein, pianist and composer (1888-1963)”). Willie Eckstein’s technical ability and charisma perfectly embodied the early Canadian jazz scene, shaping Canadian music for decades to come.
Today, the Canadian jazz music scene is more culturally and ethnically diverse than it has ever been. The most influential modern African-Canadian jazz musician is none other than Montreal native Oscar Peterson, whose jazz vision was inspired by his older sister and piano teacher, Daisy (“Oscar Peterson”). Born in 1925, his musical career began at the age of 14 on radio programs such as “Fifteen Minutes of Piano Rambling”, pouring his heart and soul into the radio waves. His nationwide popularity allowed Canada to truly call him their first jazz “star” in today’s sense of the word (King). Loved by all, Peterson has been lauded by musical associations worldwide as the “Master of Jazz” and served as the Chancellor of York university from 1993-1995. His meticulously extravagant technique earned him the titles of Companion of the Order of Canada, Officer in the Order of Arts and Letters in France, and the honour of being the first ever recipient of the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement, as well as many other distinctions. Peterson is known to have inspired other artists such as Herbie Hancock and Diana Krall through his mastery of the balance between technique and tenderness (Music: Jazz).
In conclusion, Canadian identity has always been known to have been shaped through our love for music and no group has contributed more as a whole than the African-Canadian community. From the very beginning of our history, to the turn of the 20th century, to the modern-day, many African-Canadians have contributed with abundance to our heritage and culture.
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“Black History Canada.” Historica Canada, TD Bank, blackhistorycanada.ca/timeline.php?id=1800.
Canada, Government of Canada Statistics. “Visible minority groups, 2006 counts, for Canada, provinces and territories - 20% sample data.” Statistics Canada, 2 Apr. 2008, www12.statcan.ca.
“Harry Thomas.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, Historica Canada, 15 Dec. 2013, www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/harry-thomas-emc/.
King, Betty Nygaard. “Oscar Peterson.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, Historica Canada, 20 Apr. 2015, www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/oscar-peterson/.
Litchfield, Jack. The Canadian Jazz Discography. University of Toronto Press, 1982.
Moogk, Edward B. “Willie Eckstein.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, Historica Canada, 13 Dec. 2015, www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/willie-eckstein-emc/.
“Music.” Historica Canada, TD Bank, blackhistorycanada.ca/topic.php?id=161&themeid=8.
“Music: Jazz.” African Canadian Online: An Online Resource by the Centre for the Study of Black Cultures in Canada, York University, www.yorku.ca/aconline/m_jazz.html.
“Oscar Peterson.” Historica Canada, TD Bank, blackhistorycanada.ca/arts.php?themeid=22&id=3.
“Willie Eckstein, Pianist and Composer (1888-1963).” Collections Canada, Library and Archives Canada, www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/gramophone/028011-1008-e.html.