Late afternoon last Saturday I found myself walking past Grossman’s Tavern on Spadina in Toronto when a thought suddenly struck me: “Hey, don’t the Happy Pals play here every Saturday afternoon?” I went in and sure enough, the best traditional jazz band north of N’awlins was just setting up, as they have done every Saturday at Grossman’s for the past 40 years. Yep, 40 years. As it happens I had my horn with me, and being on speaking terms with the group’s leader, a wild man named Patrick Tevlin, I suggested to him that I might play a few tunes with the band. He said “sure” and next thing I knew the band was wailing and I was waiting in the wings. By the way, this is a clip I found on YouTube of The Happy Pals in action…
When I first met Patrick (he’s the trumpet player chasing the bus in the video above) it was in a very different context. At that time I was running a festival called Digifest and Patrick was the Director of Science at The Ontario Science Centre. Now a lot of musicians have day jobs, but not a lot of musicians have day jobs as Directors of Science. But as Patrick explained to me on Saturday, he has long since given up his day job and these days he is all about the music. He is also the leader of the Happy Pals, a role bequeathed to him – along with a personal collection of 25 or so cornets and trumpets – by Kid Bastien, the band’s founder and original trumpet player, who passed away in 2003. (Before Kid died Patrick played mostly tenor sax in the band, alongside his wife Roberta, who played trombone.)
Anyway, as the band kicked into its first couple pieces I realized a few things. Firstly, that they were a very, very good band, with tremendously subtle and successful interplay between the three lead horns. And secondly, that although I have played every kind of jazz that can be played over the years, that the New Orleans style of the 1920s that the Happy Pals play is very authentic, and requires a very strict stylistic approach that I was probably not going to be able to deliver. So after the next song I casually sidled up to Patrick as he paused in his between-song speechifying and discreetly said “Hey Patrick, you know you guys sound so good, I think I’ll pass on playing today.” Patrick responded with: “Fuck that, you’re on next.”
I do love musicians. There is never any bullshit. Put up or shut up. Now.
So I joined the Happy Pals for what ended up being the rest of the set, and acquitted myself more jubilantly than I feared I might (because this band is all about good times!) even if my metallic 60s-70s funk sound landed from deep left field in that otherwise perfect party of 20s vibratos and arpeggiated flourishes. But I did learn (well re-learn, to be accurate) that the circle that is improvised Black music expands and contracts to accommodate as many voices as need to sing. In other words, just because the Happy Pals sounded so tight-knit without me was no reason to think they couldn’t sound just as tight knit by adding me. (Or close to it anyway… The circle makes way, but each individual has to find his or her place on it.) I remembered that the circle is a living shape, as is the music.
But mostly I’m writing this to say to all of you reading it Go Hear The Happy Pals at Grossmans’s tavern on Saturdays! It is a fantastic party, with an audience that is about 99% as hyped up as the band and more than willing to tip the whole place over the edge into cathartic chaos. Feel like standing on a table? Feel like dancing barefoot? Feel like singing your heart out with a bunch of smiling strangers with a pint in your hand and a rousing wailing chorus playing party music in your face from 3 feet away? Feel like surrendering to the sweet sounds of joyful old-school jazz? Feeling like drinking from the source? There is only one place to be, every Saturday for the past 40 years and with any luck every Saturday far into the future, and that’s Grossman’s Tavern on Spadina. Say hi to the Happy Pals and get happy!
ADDENDUM: just received this in the mail…someone was at the show, read my post and sent this pic of me and Toby Hughes getting high as kites on the music…