What better way for a young musician to receive a scholarship than on a stage featuring some of Canada’s top jazz artists performing an original intoxicating jazz suite influenced by Duke Ellington’s four-year residency at Harlem’s famous Cotton Club in the late 1920s.
Renowned drummer Archie Alleyne presented his annual scholarship to jazz pianist Quincy Bullen, son of Juno-award winning producer Eddie Bullen, at a gala fundraiser titled Syncopation: Life in the Key of Black. Alleyne and Dr. Andrew Scott composed the suite to honour the legacy of the Black musicians who performed at the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) Community Hall at 355 College Street.
The late Marcus Garvey attended the eighth UNIA international convention in August 1938 at the hall which was the meeting place for Toronto’s Black community.
“To be presented with a scholarship is quite amazing because it says there are individuals out there who care about the academic upliftment of young people,” said the 19-year-old Bullen who graduated from Unionville High School for the Arts and plans to enrol in Humber College’s School of Creative & Performing Arts.
“To receive the award in this setting is quite overwhelming when you consider the historical perspective and the quality of the performers. I am so honoured.”
A founding member of the Quintessential Teen-jazz Band, young Bullen’s repertoire includes his own version of popular standards from jazz, R & B and soul as well as his original compositions. His first solo album, On Q, is mostly original material demonstrating his funky jazz vibe and his sensitivity as a composer.
Bullen made his stage debut at age seven at the Caribbean Sunfest Festival that drew nearly 8,000 spectators.
“The piano was the first musical instrument I laid my eyes on because it’s in the house and my dad is always on it,” said Bullen who joined the Royal Conservatory of Music at age six. “I remember sitting on his lap as he played. My father is certainly a big influence on me and what I have been able to achieve.”
Five years ago, Bullen embarked on an acting career that has yielded him principal roles on stage and in film.
As a 70th birthday gift to Alleyne in 2003, close friends Howard Matthews and Paget Warner started the scholarship program. A total of 17 students, including young Barbadian saxophonist Joseph Callendar who will soon begin music studies at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, have benefitted from the initiative which is administered by the Brandon Street Community Development Foundation.
“Quincy is a wonderful musician,” said Alleyne who was recently recognized with the Toronto Musicians Association Lifetime Achievement Award. “We need to support our young people and understand that not all of them are out there to make a quick buck. They are artists who are striving to be professionals.”
The fundraiser featured Dora award winners Jackie Richardson and Shawn Byfield, singer/songwriter Kellylee Evans who won a Juno this year for Vocal Album of the Year and brother and sister Jay and Shawne Jackson who were the first Blacks to host a variety show on Canadian TV in the 1960s.
“This event brings us all the way back to the era of jam sessions on Sundays at 355 College Street where most of this city’s Black musicians developed their musical careers,” said Alleyne, a self-taught musician and former co-owner of the Underground Railroad restaurant. “We weren’t welcomed to perform in the Yonge St. mainstream entertainment hub prior to 1944.
“However, the predominantly Kensington Market Jewish community welcomed us and that area became the mecca for the Black community during that period. We are so pleased to be hosting this fundraiser at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre (at Bloor St. W & Spadina Ave.). It’s such a suitable and organic setting.”
Prior to the show and scholarship award presentation, there was a rare photo exhibit honouring some of the leading contributors to the Black music scene in Toronto between the 1930s and the 1950s.
Those showcased included pianist and bandleader Cy McLean who led the city’s first Black band and was the first Black member of the Toronto Musicians Protective Association in 1944 and Barrie-born singer/actress Phyllis Marshall who accompanied top dance bands at the fabled Silver Slipper dance pavilion and was a member of Cab Calloway’s orchestra.
Nova Scotia-born McLean died in 1986 at age 70 while Marshall passed away a decade later in her 74th year.
Alleyne unearthed the photos from boxes passed on to him by the late Alan McLeod who organized the jam sessions and was the weekend disc jockey at the UNIA Community Hall.
“These pictures bring back a lot of memories and they represent very talented individuals who for the most part have been entirely forgotten,” said Alleyne who is a recipient of the Urban Music Association of Canada Lifetime Achievement Award and co-founder of the Kollage sextet which was created 11 years ago to preserve the hard-bop era and its importance to the jazz composition’s creative development.