Dobbin's Den


Although I had heard visiting bands led by the likes of Charlie Spivak, Tex Beneke and Stan Kenton beginning when I was twelve, it wasn't until I was fifteen that I would first hear the skills of Montreal based musicians. The date was November 11, 1950, the place, the first New Jazz Society meeting, held in the YWCA, then located at the corner of Stanley and Dorchester. The band that played that afternoon was made up of pianist Sadik Hakim, bassist Bob Rudd, drummer Jack Orchard [the uncle of Jamie Orchard, a woman well known to Montreal viewers of Global TV] and trombonist Butch Watanabe.

Born Jiro Watanabe on June 7, 1924 in New Westminster, B.C.—he died in Toronto at the age of seventy-eight on Thursday, November 7, 2002 of a blood clot on the lung. He took up the trombone at the age of seventeen. He had moved to Montreal to join his sister and attended Montreal High, where Oscar Peterson and Nick Ayoub were also students.

In 1944-45 he was again in B.C. working in Army Intelligence. After the war he returned to Montreal and in 1945 began musical studies at the McGill Conservatory of Music. After sitting in with saxophonist Irving Pall's band at the Café St. Michel, he, in 1946, joined the Louis Metcalf International Band at the same spot, a band that included, besides that ex-Ellington trumpeter, violinist Willy Girard, bassist Al King, drummer Wilkie Wilkinson, reedmen Herb Johnson and Benny Winestone and pianists Steep Wade and Sadik Hakim. According to most sources it was the first bebop band in Montreal—if not in Canada. I had heard him on radio broadcasts from that club before experiencing him in the flesh. He was in that band through 1950 when Metcalfe, Winestone, King and, later that day, Sadik Hakim, were arrested for possession of marijuana on Monday, November 13. During his stay with the band, Butch was one of the members [along with Allan Wellman, Herb Johnson, Freddie Nichols, Willy Girard, Steep Wade and Bob Rudd] of the Wilkie Wilkinson "Boptet" that recorded "Wilk's Bop" and "All The Things You Are"--believed to be the first example of bebop recorded in Canada, the year was 1949, the place was Montreal [not Toronto as reported in the Litchfield Canadian Jazz Discography] and the label was Monogram.

Watanabe was quite active here at the time and I heard him many times, often in the company of Ayoub and Nichols. These appearances included one by a Watanabe big band that appeared at the Chez Paree as the "Jay Kai Big Band" in reference to two of Butch's trombone heroes, J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding. He was hired to play in Lionel Hampton's big band and did a Canadian tour with that band but was refused entry into the U.S. by immigration. Both John Gilmore's Who's Who of Jazz In Montreal [Vehicle Press] and Mark Miller's The Miller Companion to Jazz in Canada [Mercury Press] give the year as 1951 but I believe it was 1953 as I remember seeing Watanabe with the Hampton band at the Seville Theatre in Montreal along with Dick Twardzik, Gigi Gryce and Herb Pomeroy, none of whom were with Hampton in 1951. Most of that band, which also included trombonist Jackie Crown and drummer Floyd "Floogie" Williams, could usually be found at Aldo's on Mountain Street where pianist Keith White [Andre's dad] led a trio. In Montreal, Butch also worked with pianist Roland Lavallée and led a band at the St. Michel. He gave up music for a time, resuming his career when he moved to Toronto in 1955. When his friend from high school days, Oscar Peterson, opened the "Advanced School of Creative Music" in that city in 1960, Butch was on the teaching staff along with Ray Brown, Ed Thigpen and Phil Nimmons – the school closed in 1964. Over the years in Toronto he worked with the major large ensembles, those led by Rob McConnell, Phil Nimmons and Ron Collier. In 1967 he returned to Montreal and was heard at Expo 67 with the bands of Ayoub, Collier and Nimmons. The performances with Collier on July 21st, and Nimmons, August 4th, were released on record by the CBC. In Toronto, on July 25th and 26th, he recorded sessions with Collier that had Duke Ellington as a piano soloist—now available on the Attic label as "Duke Ellington--North of the Border." In April 1973 he was a member of the Nimmons band that joined Oscar Peterson and bassist NHOP [Niels-Henning Orsted-Pedersen] for a CBC recording of Peterson's "Canadiana Suite."

In 1979 he was part of an All Star Sextet from Canada that toured Europe, and on July 16th, the Sextet was recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, as a group, and behind singer Salome Bey—the other members of the sextet were reedman P.J. Perry, trumpeter Al Penfold, pianist Armas (Art) Maiste, bassist Don Thompson and drummer Terry Clarke. Other record dates in Toronto found him employed by the likes of Guido Basso, Brian Browne, Johnny Burt, Bob McMullin, Ed Bickert, Ben McPeek, Teddy Roderman, Jerry Toth and Jimmy Namaro. He's also seen in a club setting with tenorman D.T. [Don] Thompson in the 1963 National Film Board documentary, "Toronto Jazz". Later in life he Travelled as Oscar Peterson's road manager--on occasion joining O.P. on trombone, and then was featured, on both trombone and harmonica, in a band directed by bassist Skip Beckwith that for many years backed singer Anne Murray--reedman Dave Caldwell was also in that band.

My memory darts back to the last two times I saw Butch, the first was at the Meridien Hotel in Montreal where I spent the night at his table enjoying the trio of Roland Lavallee with Richard Parris and Jean Cyr. We were joined later by Oscar Peterson. Butch had driven Oscar's car to Montreal and I remember Oscar asking Butch how the car was on the way down—Butch said it ran better when he got some LEADED gas into it. I said LEADED gas! What kind of car is it? Oscar answered, a ROLLS ROYCE. Another treat that night was hearing Oscar play with the unsung Parris, his former neighbour. The last time I was to see Butch was at his mother's funeral at St. James the Apostle Church in Montreal, a site I now frequent twice a week with other friends of Bill Wilson. I sat beside Iona Ayoub, Nick's widow, that day and we both enjoyed reminiscing with Butch after the service. I am happy to have so many memories of this marvellous man and musician. There is memorial service planned for Toronto the week of November 10th.

(For more on Watanabe's Montreal days see John Gilmore's book Swinging In Paradise)

© Len Dobbin 2002