Black jazz musicians in Vancouver play to keep history alive

Although according to musicians, Vancouver has been a stop on the jazz circuit throughout the decades, Black players say city policies have kept the community from growing.

Feven Kidane, a local jazz musician says by continuing to play jazz and keep the artform alive she is honoring ancestors.

“I feel like I’m just the furthering of the dream of those ancestors. Because this music is still alive in Black people everywhere. I think that being part of that as a mosaic is just such a blessing, I feel like it’s a spiritual path, very spiritual music. A lot of the Black community does not play this music here in Vancouver. A lot of them are more into R&B, into some soul. There’s only a handful of us, it’s sad to me.”

Jazz is a genre that originated in Black southern communities of New Orleans, Louisiana, United States, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with roots in blues and ragtime.

For many communities, jazz was a medium to come together, even in Vancouver which once had a strong Black community in Hogan’s Alley.

But Kidane says the lack of Black jazz in Vancouver today is due to the city gentrifying Hogan’s Alley to make room for the Georgia Viaduct.

“They tore down Hogan’s Alley I think in 1970, that whole entire strip of the Downtown Eastside – Jimi Hendrix’s grandmother had a chicken place there, their family was always here, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, they would always pass through, because that’s where all the Black people were!”

“Whenever Black stars came through, particularly jazz stars, they all ended up in the Hogan’s alley area because, racism being what is, they were welcome there.”

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Musician Wayne Stewart says although most jazz players did not come to Vancouver to make their careers, some got lucky.

Eleanor Collins is a 102-year-old jazz singer who has been described as “Vancouver’s First Lady of Jazz.”

She is now on a postage stamp, and lives in Victoria.

These days, Stewart says the Black players in the music scene that play genres like soul and R&B are still playing what he calls, the music of the African Diaspora – and jazz music is at the root of that movement.

“I always think of those genres as fruits of the same tree, or branches of that tree, I can think of lots of Black players in Vancouver, but not all of them, or even most of them play exclusively jazz.”

While Black musicians with a specialty in jazz may not be plentiful in Vancouver, Kidane wants people to know how her beloved genre is tied to Black identity.

“This music goes so far beyond Black history month – this is the Black legacy of the world,” Kidane said.

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