Saturday, August 26, 2017

Claude Ranger: Canadian Jazz Legend


















Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to either meet Canadian jazz drummer Claude Ranger nor hear him play live before he disappeared in late 2000. I moved to Montreal and then Toronto long after he had left those cities but his reputation preceded him. Over the years, mainly through  colourful anecdotes via other musicians that knew and played with him, I gradually came to appreciate and develop a curiosity for this drummer who was as much a mystery to me as he was recognized as being a passionate Master jazz drummer. One thing that I noticed was how all those that did play with him or heard him perform spoke of him with a certain reverence. This intrigued me and I often found myself asking: "Who was Claude Ranger?"

I believe it was pianist/bassist/vibraphonist Don Thompson who first mentioned Claude's name to me over lunch at the Banff Centre during the summer of 1997. I had just played with Thompson for the first time that morning and somehow he knew that I was from Montreal (although transplanted from Regina, Saskatchewan when I was 18 years old...) So when I asked him how he knew that, he remarked that "I played like a Montreal drummer!" Still not clear as to what exactly he meant by that I pressed him for more but all I remember from that conversation was that he suggested that I check out Claude Ranger...

As I gradually became more involved in the Montreal jazz scene during the late 90s and early 2000s, I became more interested in the history of jazz in Montreal and of its historical icons, particularly of its drummers. Claude's name continually popped up in conversations. However, it wasn't until I moved to Toronto in 2007 that I had the opportunity to work with a number of musicians that knew Claude on and off the bandstand during his time in Toronto. After several years of asking around, I am still fascinated by the "legend" that is Claude Ranger but unfortunately limited by the fact that I never heard him and that his available recorded output is quite limited.

Fortunately, a recent book by author and former Globe & Mail jazz critic Mark Miller changes this and does a great job of telling Ranger's story. This publication documents Claude's journey in an exceptional way without relying on any of the romanticized mythology that often surrounds Claude. One really gets a sense of Ranger's personality as well as his contributions and influence in the Canadian jazz scene over the course of his life. Furthermore, Miller's book also offers a wonderful snapshot and insight into the jazz scenes of Montreal and Toronto in the 1960s, 70s and 80s through to Vancouver in the 1990s, all through the lens of Ranger's activities in each of those communities.

In my humble opinion I believe this to be the most important book on a Canadian jazz figure in recent times. Any musician who aspires to play jazz in Canada needs to read this book.

Here is a recent radio interview with Mark Miller from Jazz.fm where he talks about his book:


And here's a review from Paul Wells with some personal perspective on Ranger and Miller's book:

http://reviewcanada.ca/magazine/2017/07/disappearing-act/

This is a few years old now but here is a CBC radio interview produced by Carol Warren on Claude Ranger entitled "Sticks & Stones":

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/streetstories/sticks-and-stones/3254164

Finally, Mark Miller was very generous to offer a few words of insight into his book. I am very grateful that he took the time to answer my call in addition to providing an insight into one of Canada's most important Jazz figures:

"I knew Claude Ranger. I admired his drumming. I appreciated the spirit and intensity that he brought to the bandstand and to the Canadian jazz scene more broadly. I was intrigued by his approach to music and to life in general, and I was troubled by some of the choices that he made as he reconciled the demands of one with the other.

He struck me as an interesting study in the tensions, rewards and frustrations of the creative life, a study that would challenge me as a writer to, on one hand, balance my personal familiarity with him against my professional inclination toward journalistic objectivity, and to, on the other hand, avoid sensationalizing or sentimentalizing his story in the way that biographical studies of conflicted musicians — well, conflicted artists in every field — so often do.

Choosing to write about Ranger is also, I think, consistent with my interest, as noted on the back cover of the book, in “musicians and narratives that have been lost, forgotten or otherwise overlooked in jazz history.” 

That same interest is evident in my biographical studies of Valaida Snow, Herbie Nichols and Lonnie Johnson, in my survey of the pioneering American musicians who took jazz around the world in the 1910s and 1920s (Some Hustling This!) and indeed in the other books I’ve written from a variety of perspectives about jazz in Canada. Canadian jazz musicians have been chronically overlooked in jazz history and Ranger, for one, although well known inside the Canadian jazz community, enjoyed little recognition beyond it.

The key, though — the reason for writing the book at all — was ultimately the music that Ranger made and the influence/impact that he had on the Canadian scene from the mid-1960s through the mid-1990s. As a drummer, bandleader, teacher and mentor, he set a demanding standard for his contemporaries, and a compelling example for younger musicians — first in Montreal, then in Toronto and finally in Vancouver. 

He wished from his bandmates the same determination that he himself displayed to, as he liked to put it, “go further.” Some of his bandmates followed and some resisted, but he moved jazz forward in each of those three cities, challenging the status quo at every stop but also, in time, finding himself marginalized — and, equally, marginalizing himself — in the process.

In narrative terms, his career path across Canada also offered me a structure within which to investigate and illuminate the history and practice of modern jazz in this country during the late 20th century. This, as seen from Ranger’s relatively contrarian perspective, one that I share, which measured the worth of music by its originality rather than its popularity and by its commitment, not its compromise.

Of course, Ranger’s disappearance from Aldergrove, B.C., in late 2000 only adds to the story’s intrigue. His fate remains unknown 17 years later, and perhaps this book will provide a little of the closure that we, as members of the Canadian jazz community, have all needed. 

It was the Vancouver drummer Dylan van der Schyff, one of many younger Canadian musicians to benefit from Ranger’s support, who initially encouraged me when I was wondering whether or not to write the book. “Don’t just do it for Claude,” he told me, “do it for us.” Only now, with the publication of the book and the response to it, am I realizing just how many of “us” there are."

- Mark Miller 2017

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*Post-script:

When I asked Miller to recommend some recordings of Claude Ranger's drumming to the uninitiated,  this is what he replied:

"As far as recordings are concerned, little if anything is available. Quite a few exist only as LPs; those that were reissued on CD, or were recorded as CDs in the first place, are by and large out of print, although I note that Amazon.ca has a couple of copies of the Brian Barley LP/CD, 1970, with Claude’s Le Pingouin. So that’s something. Amazon also has a few new or used copies of Jane Bunnett’s In Dew Time and P.J. Perry’s Quintet, but the Amazon listing for Don Thompson’s Forgotten Memories is incorrect; the cover and track listing are for someone else’s record altogether…"

If you are interested in purchasing and reading a copy of Claude Ranger: Canadian Jazz Legend, it can be found here:





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