REMEMBERING ROLAND LAVALLEE
A dear friend is gone, Roland Lavallee died Friday, May 28, at the age of 82. This news came moments ago from Emile "Cisco" Normand. We even shared an astrological sign; Roland was born February 24, 1922 in Sudbury, Ontario and was a distant relative of Calixa Lavallee, the man who wrote "O Canada". His father was a fur trapper and his mother, a Franco-Ontarian. He also had a brother who played piano professionally. In 1927 the family moved to Montreal and he began piano studies. Gifted with perfect pitch he later also took up the trumpet and at 11 was studying with Joe Christie Sr. and played in his marching band into 1930. Classical piano studies began around 1936 and he gained an interest in jazz after hearing pianist Bob Langlois playing with the Johnny Laurendeau band at the Palermo. He was soon heard subbing for Langlois and jamming in Montreal's east end clubs. At the beginning of the 40s Roland joined the Roland David big band at Chez Maurice Danceland on the south side of Ste. Catherine Street between Drummond and Mountain streets. He stayed there for over 5 years with bands under the leadership of Russ Meredith and Bix Belair among others. By September 1942 he was also working in south shore Iberville leading his own quartet made up of trumpeter Guy Lucien Pare, tenorman Rene Laurin and drummer Alexandre Minard. That same year he began hosting after hour jam sessions at the Algiers, located on Mountain Street below Dorchester Blvd, (where Aldo's was later located) and the following year, as musical director for singer Murielle Millard, he spent six months on the road touring Quebec and the New England states (where they were heard on NBC radio). In the summer of 1947 he was in the Eastern Townships working with an octet led by Johnny Gilbert at the Hotel Venise in Mississquoi Bay.
In the late 40s, when I developed my interest in jazz, he was leading the relief trio at the Alberta Lounge where I first heard Oscar Peterson via radio broadcasts. He also was found rehearsing with the Maynard Ferguson Sextet for a tour that never materialized. Lavallee then led a tentet that included Percy Ferguson (Maynard's saxophone playing brother) and bassist Hal Gaylor (who later was a part of the Canadian All Stars as well as working with Charlie Parker at the Chez Paree and in the U.S. with Paul Bley, Chico Hamilton, Tony Bennett and Benny Goodman). The octet played Saturdays nights at the Stadium Ballroom. That time period found Roland playing on "The Corner" at Rockhead's and at the Café St. Michel with Lloyd Duncan, the Sealey brothers, Hugh and George, and Irvin Pall, as well as with the Stan Simon Septet and the Johnny Laurendeau Quartet at the Bal Tabarin (where Gil Coggins played in the 60s) located around the corner from the Alberta Lounge and with guitarist Buck Lacombe in Ste. Adele. In 1950, the year I became part of the Montreal jazz community by joining the Montreal chapter of the New Jazz Society, Roland began combining studio work in the day with work in night clubs and writing arrangements for club acts. He had a trio, with Gaylor and Tony Romandini, at the Venus de Milo Room on Ste. Catherine Street across from Simpson's (where I also heard guitarist Mary Osborne). Another trio with guitarist Curly Reid and Al King (the bassist with Louis Metcalf's International band) worked at the Copacabana. Later A quartet with vocalist Russ Vanelli, Romandini and bassist Marcel Lambert were heard on French language radio station CHLP. By the mid-50s Roland had been heard around town the bands of Paul Notar, Frank Costi and Johnny Laurendeau and also worked in St. Gabriel de Brandon for a number of summers as well as at the Top Hat, the St. Michel and the Maroon Club (with the Bobby Roberts trio) and the El Morocco with his own trio. I first got to hear and know him through appearances at both the New Jazz Society and its successor the Emanon Jazz Society and I remembering frequenting the All American on Dorchester near Mountain where he and a group that included Benny Winestone backed the strippers. The 60s saw him working with a Benny Winestone--Willy Girard Quintet and at spots like the Downbeat and the Dunn's Black Orchid room. In 1963 he was to found working with singer Joan Eden at the Times Square on Bleury Street, just north of the Imperial Theatre, and this was another of my favourite hang outs - there was quite a bit of sitting in during their stay. Work with another singer, Flo Dryer, led to work in Ottawa and a tour of service organizations in Greenland and in Europe. Both Dryer and the Four Lads offered him work in the U.S. but this was prevented by U.S. Immigration policy. More singers beckoned and he was to work with Guido Pucci and with Lise Darcy with whom he worked at places like the Playboy Club and Bill Wong's in Montreal as well as an engagement in Wildwood, N.J.. In 1979 he worked a duo at the Stork Club with Charlie Biddle as well as playing solo piano. He later rejoined Biddle at Tiffany's on Crescent Street and when Charlie headed for Biddles, the club that George Durst opened in his name, Roland stayed on with a superb trio with Richard Parris on tenor and Jean Cyr on bass. And this got to be another of my favourite hangs.
Three things spring to mind when I think of that engagement. The night, that after a Place des Arts concert that featured Dizzy Gillespie with James Moody, Milt Jackson, Philly Joe Jones, Ray Brown and Hank Jones, the late Andy Anderson and I got hold of the latter and took him to Tiffany's where Oliver Jones also headed and Roland, Oliver and Hank were heard into the wee small hours. Cisco Normand was also part of the band at Tiffany's and I remember on a Friday night telling Roland that I would be back the following night as it was my wedding anniversary. When we arrived we discovered that he had arranged with the chef in the fancy restaurant upstairs that he prepare his specialty (not on the menu)--they even picked the wine and, after that gourmet meal, we spent a lovely evening listening to music downstairs. The third occasion was my daughter Victoria's 8th birthday (she's due to deliver my third grandchild this week) and Roland arrived with Cyr and Parris to play for the birthday party. The band (Cyr and Parris) went from Tiffany's to the Hotel Meridian and I recall a night that Roland called to invite me down. I spent the evening sitting with Butch Watanabe and we were later joined by Oscar Peterson--the most time I've ever spent with him--and yeah, Roland got him to sit in. We are now into the 80s and Roland worked accompanying singer Nanette Workman on a number of jazz gigs and in 1985, again with Parris and Cyr, worked at the Casablanca during the Montreal International Jazz Festival. In 1985-86 he worked solo at that spot and again did some gigs (TV and movie soundtracks) with Ms. Workman. Before retiring due to ill health he Travelled playing in Florida, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. When he felt up to it he could be counted on to attend a number of "old timers" reunions. For a while I lived in the same neighborhood and I remember running into him at a local grocery store and him being elated at the number of phone calls he had received as the result of my mentioning his birthday on my radio show--it was easy to remember as his followed mine by a day.
It was my privilege to have known this wonderful and talented man. Roland thanks for the music and the memories.
[In the middle of writing this I got a call from his son Pierre and I have more information to pass on. His ashes are resting in the Mausolem St. Martin in the back of Funeral complex Alfred Dallaire, 2159 Blvd. St. Martin East in Laval and Friday night, June 4, at 7pm there will be a celebration of his life with many musician friends in attendance. The number there is 450-667-5858. THERE WILL BE MUSIC!]
© Len Dobbin 2003
Montreal, Quebec, Canada