Stopping off in Victoria for a few days before heading north to camp and kayak, music pouring out of Day’s Inn gave pause and had us entranced – especially by that live-wire piano player. At the Empress Hotel, those lovely soft melodies accompanying tea time were coming from... hey, it’s the same piano player. And then, popping up at Beacon Hill bandshell... him again. And in Bastion Square, yep... him! My wife Judy and I didn’t know it at the time, and he certainly didn’t realize it, but he was our Pied Piper to Victoria.
Back in New York, watching Good Morning America, it’s him again, providing background music to a sequence on Victoria. Who is this guy? A Canadian version of something like the Japanese national living treasures?
On our return to Victoria, we learn his name is Tom Vickery. In a town overflowing with talent, he is Mr. Music, playing hot jazz, cool jazz, from orchestras, bands and combos to solo. With the Dixieland Express, he has been affectionately known as “Papa Smurf.” For Octoberfest, he could appear in lederhosen, looking every bit an impish garden gnome. A warm sense of humour, and modesty – “I had to leave the stage to feed the meter.” – belies impressive credentials including early stints with the Halifax Symphony Orchestra, European tours, and as Director of Music at Royal Roads Military College.
Embracing the entire musical field, here is a musician happily, conspicuously dedicated and comfortable with all manner of music and musicians. “They gave me the wrong key, so I had to transpose while playing,” says Tom. A great soul revealed through 10 irrepressible fingers, chuckles and smiles reflecting his pleasure, playing everywhere: stages – indoors and out – in island communities, jazz festivals, benefits, opening for visiting artists and Sunday night vespers in neighbourhood churches. “At one [festival] we were greeted with half the population marching naked,” says Tom.
He mentors and encourages the young of all ages and abilities while being sought for his opinions and advice by professionals. In a three-hour Pianorama with some of the U.S. and Canada’s best jazz pianists, he chose to showcase not himself but the work of three local composers. After-hours for the bedridden, he performs privately for a dying fan… And so much else we’ll never know. As for all those free shows and concerts in the park and around town, guess who is organizing them – all of them? From exciting performer to archivist to inspiring example - what’s left? Sainthood?
This amazing array of talent comes to focus on Thursday nights at one of the few remaining jazz clubs on the continent - Hermann’s Jazz Club. This charming venue nurtures a flourishing jazz scene and survives through the altruistic efforts of Hermann Nieweler, the many performers grateful for its existence, and loyal patrons who recognize its uniqueness. When we called Hermann’s to inquire 17 years ago, a friendly voice advised, “C’mon down. It’s like a party.” And what a run – 26 years now. Tom Vickery, his trio, and the parade of artists, from local to international, who have come to jam have made Thursday nights at Hermann’s a rare and incomparable treat. Each evening is different, invariably inspiring, the magic guaranteed by an unpredictable gathering of talent.
Musical options develop after a first warm-up set by Tom and his trio, playing new numbers and improvisational twists to old standards. One may wish they play the night. But there are young artists in the wings, always respectfully encouraged, and themselves often bordering on professional, as well as old friends. Sometimes, musicians from eastern Canada, or the U.S. northwest, or the Naden Band, Europe, or even an entire orchestra from a visiting cruise ship will join in the fun. What varieties of sit-ins, one never knows. Apart from multiple trumpets, guitars and saxes, we’ve been surprised by four basses, four drums, five vocalists, flutes, a harmonica, accordion, violin, and even a musical saw. And one night, Hermann made a sudden appearance, playing a vigorous washboard. By the third set, an evening can reluctantly end with the excitement of inspired sounds and another timeless memory.
As for Tom, this is his Hermann’s, his milieu, his kaleidoscopic evening. As an artist, he shines with the best, but as a host he defers to others. He’s a star who doesn’t make himself the centre, inviting musicians to sit in, encouraging the young, serving rather as an enabler.
There is that benign smile with a ballad; he chuckles, chortles and twinkles as he lets loose burning up the keys; business-like calls on changes; and the final call, ending an evening at a high, not easy when it’s a rollicking jam session.
In those moments when Tom plays more notes per second than any other pianist, a screen on the wall beamed from over the piano shows fingers moving faster than the eye can follow. His rhythm, trills and chords evoke primal joy, his audience recovering with gasps, cheers and grateful applause, acknowledged with a humble, gentle nod. To experience such moments is the gift of a maestro whose talent is but a reflection of his depth and humanity. What else would you want from a national treasure?
Ellington the pianist was known as Duke. Basie the pianist enjoyed being the Count. How about Lord Vickery of Victoria? Sir Joyful Noise? Or, in keeping with the man’s modesty, maybe just Boss Piano.
And a last word from Tom: “Playing with Barbara Blair in her travelling School of Cool, we ended with Ellington’s rousing ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing,’ featuring our fabulous drummer Lou Williamson, and of course these elementary school kids went wild. In the questions that followed, the first was from a very serious little guy who stood up and asked, ‘How old is the piano player?’ I’m sure I heard Barb reply, ‘Ageless.’”
FEBRUARY 2012 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER ISLAND