Black Music and Musicians in Canada

The first black in Canada was Matthew da (de) Costa, a former Portuguese slave and fisherman, who sailed to Port Royal in 1605 (or 1606) to serve as a translator for Samuel de Champlain.

The first black in Canada was Matthew da (de) Costa, a former Portuguese slave and fisherman, who sailed to Port Royal in 1605 (or 1606) to serve as a translator for Samuel de Champlain. The holding of slaves was legal under French and British law during the colonization of Canada, and slaves were brought to Canada as early as 1628 (post-dating the first slaves in the southern colonies of the USA by nine years). Some 5000 blacks migrated to Canada (specifically Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) during the US War of Independence, 3500 as freemen (who became tenant-farmers) and 1500 as slaves. In the late 19th century, however, 1200 blacks sailed from Halifax for Sierra Leone.

With the abolition of slavery in Canada by 1833 (and the de facto abolition in Upper Canada as early as 1793) Canada became a haven for blacks escaping from the southern USA by means of the 'underground railroad' which had terminal points at several border locations in southwestern Ontario, along the Detroit and Niagara rivers, and in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. It would appear that several thousand, perhaps tens of thousands, of the fugitives availed themselves of the opportunity to live in freedom under British law, but that a very large percentage returned to the USA after the emancipation of 1865. Nevertheless, many communities of their descendants survive in the area between Windsor and Niagara Falls, and several noted musicians were born in Ontario towns in the late 1800s and early 1900s: the cornetist John W. Johnson (1865-1935) in London, composer Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) in old Drummondville (later part of Niagara Falls), the jazz pianist Lou Hooper (1884-1977), the songwriter Shelton Brooks (1886-1975), and the jazz bassist and arranger Buster Harding (1912-1965) in North Buxton (the most famous of the black communities in Ontario), and the jazz pianist Kenny Kersey (1916-1983) at Harrow. Each spent some or all of his adult life in the USA. Similarly, the brothers James and George Bohee of Indiantown (St John, NB) had international careers in minstrelsy; James (ca 1846-1897) was noted especially as a banjo player.

In 1871 there were some 21,000 blacks in Canada; by 1890, however, the number had declined to about 15,000. Not until the mid-20th century did this figure begin to increase substantially. Immigration (of all races) from the West Indies and Africa between 1950 and 1985 reached 250,000 and 100,000 respectively. Although census figures are not broken down on the basis of race, Canada's black population by the mid-1980s was estimated (Canadian Encyclopedia) in excess of a half million, the largest concentration in Toronto and the rest in other urban cities, notably Montreal and Halifax. Some blacks still lived in the rural areas of the Maritimes settled by their ancestors 200 years before.

The earliest documented instance of a black musician in Canada is a notice in the Quebec Gazette of 30 Nov 1775 for a runaway slave named Lowcanes who spoke French but little English, 'et jouant très bien du violon' ('plays the violin very well'). A water-colour from 1807, G. Heriot's Menuet des Canadiens, shows a black musician playing a tambourine for a group of dancers, and an occupational survey of 159 blacks in Toronto in 1840 (cited by Daniel G. Hill in The Freedom-Seekers: Blacks in Early Canada, Agincourt, Ont, 1981), revealed two musicians among their number. Hill also noted the presence in Collingwood, Ont, of an unnamed fiddler, fl 1850-70, who played for excursion parties on the boats Ploughboy and Francis Smith.

Music in the black communities of Ontario and the Maritimes was largely centred during the 19th century in the church. It is known, for example, that blacks in Oakville, Ont, had their own British Methodist Episcopal Church, established in 1875, and that one of their ministers often was invited to gatherings in Hamilton and Toronto because of his ability to sing spirituals. Few folk songs are known to have survived in the older black communities of Canada. Arthur Huff Fauset's Folklore of Nova Scotia (Philadelphia 1931) includes 20 song texts, most either collected from blacks or of black origin. (Fauset cites a white Nova Scotian, Carrie B. Grover, who had in her repertoire 'songs from slavery days,' all of which she had learned from her father.) Helen Creighton and Doreen H. Senior's collection, Traditional Songs from Nova Scotia (Toronto 1950) includes some songs of black origin, and Creighton reports (Ethnomusicology, Sep 1972) that she collected at least 81, including some singing games. Paul McIntyre, in Black Pentecostal Music in Windsor, notes many African survivals in the music at a Black Pentecostal church attended by descendants of the North Buxton settlers and other blacks in the Windsor area.

Choral activity during the 20th century has remained centred in or related to the church - eg, the Radio Kings of Harmony were associated with Toronto's First Baptist Church in the 1930s, the same city's British Methodist Episcopal Church Choir has been active for many years and under Grace Trotman's direction was responsible for the development of several successful local entertainers, and the Montreal Black Community Youth Choir (1974-81) was affiliated with Union United Church in St-Henri and the predecessor to the professional Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir. (See also Gospel.)

Professional ensembles were in fact active in Canada at the turn of the century, among them the Celebrated Coloured Canadian Concert Co and the Famous Canadian Jubilee Singers, the latter led by Josephus O'Banyon of Amherstburg, Ont. Meanwhile, US blacks performed in Canada on vaudeville circuits, and isolated instances have been documented of noted jazz musicians (eg, Jelly Roll Morton) living and working in Canada by the early 1920s. The more obscure James 'Slap Rags' White and Millard Thomas, pianists both, made Montreal their home in the late 1910s, the latter leading his Famous Chicago Novelty Orchestra there until 1928.

Montreal's closely-knit black community in the St-Henri neighbourhood gave rise to a concentration of nightclubs that presented black performers for racially-mixed audiences from the 1920s through the 1950s. Located in the vicinity of 'The Corner' (Mountain Street and St. Antoine), these establishments included Rockhead's Paradise, the Café St-Michel and the Terminal Club. A black musician's union, the Canadian Coloured Clef Club, was established in 1928 and continued in various forms until ca 1943.

Important St-Henri figures over the years, most essentially jazz musicians, included the pianists Lou Hooper and Harold (Steep) Wade, the saxophonists Bill Kersey, and Myron Sutton (leader of the all-black Canadian Ambassadors, active 1931-9 and heard in elsewhere in Quebec and in Ontario), the bassists Austin 'Ozzie' Roberts and Bob Rudd, and the trumpeter Allan Wellman. The Sealey family - the saxophonists Hugh (1916-1980) and George (1918-1962) and the pianist Milt (b 1928) - enjoyed a high profile during the 1940s and 1950s. Several musicians visiting from the USA in this period, including Charles Biddle, Vernon Isaac, the entertainer Al Cowans (with his Tramp Band), the pianists Sadik Hakim and Valdo WIlliams, the trumpeters Jimmy Jones, Henry (Buddy) Jordan, and Louis Metcalf, and the saxophonists Herb Johnson, B.T. Lundy, and Gladstone Scott, would remain in the city for many years. (See John Gilmore's Who's Who of Jazz in Montreal: Ragtime to 1970 for detailed discussion of these musicians' careers.)

It was in this environment that the pianists Oliver Jones, Oscar Peterson, Joe Sealy, and Reg Wilson, the saxophonist Richard Parris, the drummer Norman Marshall Villeneuve and several other noted Canadian jazz musicians were raised. Daisy Peterson Sweeney, sister of Oscar Peterson, has been an important teacher in St- Henri. Their peers elsewhere in Canada included Archie Alleyne, Wray Downes, Sonny Greenwich, the pianist Connie (Conrad) Maynard, the saxophonist Dougie Richardson (b Toronto 24 Mar 1937, d Hamilton 25 Jan 2007), and the vibraphonist Frank Wright of Toronto (where Harry Lucas, originally of Chatham, Ont, and his Rhythm Aces - later Rhythm Knights - had been active during the 1930s, and the pianist Cy McLean, from Sydney, NS, led a popular band in the 1940s) and the tenor saxophonist Charles 'Bucky' Adams, Ivan Symonds, and Nelson Symonds from communities in the Halifax area.

Other US jazz musicians to work for extended periods in Canadian cities, beginning in the 1950s or early 1960s, include the saxophonist Sayyd Abdul Al-Khabyyr (Ottawa, Montreal), the pianists Calvin Jackson (Toronto), Linton Garner (Montreal, Vancouver) and Mike Taylor (Vancouver, Quebec City), and the bassists Roland Haynes (Montreal) and Wyatt Ruther (Ottawa and Vancouver), and the vibraphonist Elmer Gill (Vancouver). Among younger Canadians, the trombonist Russ Little, the pianist Andy Milne, the bassist George Mitchell, the drummers Jim Norman and Clayton Johnston, the singers Denzil Pinnock and Sharron McLeod, and the saxophonist Michael Stuart also have been active in jazz. It must be noted, however, that black musicians are a minority among the country's jazz musicians.

The singers Eleanor Collins, Isabelle Lucas, and Phyllis Marshall, meanwhile, were pioneering figures for their work on CBC radio and TV during the 1940s and 1950s. They have been followed in the variety field (radio, TV, and/or stage) by such singers or singers-actors (many US-born) as Salome Bey, Leon Bibb, Arlene Duncan, Tobi Lark, Ranee Lee, Billy Newton-Davis, Jackie Richardson, Bobbi Sherron, Dennis Simpson, Ron Small, Almeta Speaks, and Rudi Webb, many of whom have appeared in musicals devoted to black history and culture - eg, Bey's Indigo (1978) and Madame Gertrude (1985), the latter starring Richardson, Bibb's One More Stop on the Freedom Train (1984). Lee starred as Billie Holiday in productions of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill mounted in Montreal and Toronto during the late 1980s.

The dissemination on record and radio of black music styles other than jazz from the USA (and later the Caribbean) led to their eventual introduction into Canada, beginning in the 1950s with blues and rhythm and blues, and continuing with calypso in the 1960s, reggae and disco in the 1970s, and rap in the 1980s. With the exception of blues and R&B, the vast majority of musicians active in Canada in these styles are black. Most, however, have remained isolated from the Canadian pop mainstream, seldom championed by the burgeoning domestic recording industry. In support of their efforts, the Black Music Association of Canada was established in Toronto in 1984 by Daniel Caudeiron and others and 1985-7 presented BMAC Awards in nine pop-music and industry categories. Juno Awards were established in 1985 in categories for Reggae/Calypso and R&B/Soul. For further discussion of these styles see the EMC entries for Blues, Calypso, Disco, Rap, Reggae, and Rhythm and blues.

Other, largely-mainstream styles of popular music - eg, country and bluegrass, pop, rock, and folk - have had relatively few black exponents in Canada. Harry Cromwell and Brent Williams worked in the late 1950s in bluegrass (see Bluegrass), and Williams later in country music (recording for Boot - eg, 'Back Home in Georgia,' 1972); George Hector of Grand Bay, NB, performed in the Maritimes during the 1950s as 'The Singing Chauffeur'. Dan Hill enjoyed great success with pop ballads in the late 1970s, and Kat (Kathleen) Dyson, a member of the R&B band Tchukon in the 1980s and a soloist with the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir, has played guitar and sung with several of Quebec's leading pop and rock artists. Fred Booker, Al Cromwell, Beverly Glenn-Copeland, Faith Nolan (see Feminist music), and Jackie Washington have been popular with folk audiences. Nolan, the dub poet Lillian Allen, and Four the Moment have joined with several rap artists of the early 1990s to give clear and often pointed expression to the black experience in Canada.

Canadian blacks also have been heard on the concert stage, among them the contralto Portia White, the tenor Garnet Brooks, and the sopranos Burnetta Day (of Chatham, Ont) and Sharon Coste (of Montreal). Denise Narcisse-Mair, originally from Jamaica, was conductor 1980-1 of the Bach-Elgar Choir of Hamilton and has taught choral music at the RCMT, Queen's University and McMaster University. Several US musicians also have been active in Canada, among them the conductors James De Preist (nephew of the famous contralto Marian Anderson), 1976-83 with the Quebec Symphony Orchestra, and Paul Freeman, 1979-88 with the Victoria Symphony Orchestra. The cellist Anthony Elliott was a member 1970-3 of the TSO, principal 1978-82 of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, and also has played in Quartet Canada. Among other US-born concert performers in Canada are the counter-tenor Theodore Gentry in Toronto and the pianist Monica Gaylord, who has given recitals devoted to the music of black composers, including Nathaniel Dett.

See also African Music in Canada, Caribana, Caribbean Music in Canada, Dance Bands, Jazz, Ragtime

Further Reading

  • Robbins, Vivian M. Musical Buxton (Buxton, Ont 1969?)

    Winks, Robin. The Blacks in Canada: A History (Montreal 1971)

    Henry, Francis. Forgotten Canadians: The Blacks of Nova Scotia (Don Mills, Ont 1973)

    'Black artists crave opportunity for free expression,' MSc, 276, Mar-Apr 1974

    Henry, Francis. 'Black music in the Maritimes,' CFMJ, vol 32, 1975

    McIntyre, Paul. Black Pentecostal Music in Windsor, Canadian Centre for Folk Culture Studies Paper no. 15 (Ottawa 1976)

    Spellen, Suzanne. 'Black music in Canada: A search for Afro-Canadian music (with a special emphasis on sacred music),' undergraduate essay (Yale 1977)

    Richmond, Norman. 'The uphill struggle of our black musicians,' Toronto Star, 14 Apr 1979

    Rosenberg, Neil V. 'Ethnicity and class: black country musicians in the Maritimes, Journal of Canadian Studies, vol 23, Spring-Summer 1988

    'Back to the 50's with Doc Rogers,' CMN, vol 9, Nov 1988

    Caudeiron, Daniel. 'Canadian black music: 1964-1991,' Upfront, Jul-Aug 1991

    Taranger, Angela. 'Multiple meanings: the role of black gospel in an interracial and multi-ethnic Edmonton church,' Canadian University Music Review, vol 19, 1999

    Winks, Robin. The Blacks in Canada: A History, 2nd ed (Montreal, 2000)

    Junne, George H. The history of Blacks in Canada: a selectively annotated bibliography (Westport CT, 2003)

    Canadian Jazz Discography

    Gilmore, John. Swinging in Paradise: The Story of Jazz in Montreal (Montreal: Véhicule Press 1988)

External Links