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It began inauspiciously enough with former Mahogany Rush roadie Jim West deciding to record pianist Oliver Jones live at the downtown jazz club Biddles.
And so started Justin Time Records.
More than 600 recordings later, Justin Time is now celebrating its 40th anniversary. Neither West nor Jones could have possibly anticipated back then that Justin Time would become this country’s premier jazz, blues and gospel label.
But West’s relationship with legendary Little Burgundy-born pianist Jones goes far deeper than West having cut 26 discs with Jones over the ensuing four decades. Jones also reached out to some of his illustrious pals to help spread the word on Justin Time.
These friends included the likes of Oscar Peterson, Diana Krall, Ranee Lee, Susie Arioli, David Clayton-Thomas, the Montreal Jubilation Choir, Matt Herskowitz and Paul Bley. The aforementioned along with guitar virtuoso Frank Marino’s Mahogany Rush and many other notables are featured in the new album 40 Years of Justin Time Records, a compilation to commemorate this milestone.
In addition, there will be a musical homage to Justin Time with five nights of concerts in September at the Upstairs Jazz Bar featuring performances by, among others, Lee, Herskowitz, the Doxas Brothers and the Taurey Butler Trio.
West and Jones have shown up downstairs at Upstairs to talk about Justin Time’s 40th and the coming concerts. And to reminisce.
West was 28 and Jones 49 when they first hooked up 40 years ago. They have been largely inseparable ever since, speaking and hanging out together, like taking in the Krall concert at this summer’s jazz fest.
But credit West for spotting the mega-talent that was Jones and helping to make the world aware of that. And credit Jones for going to bat for West.
“I owe so much to Oliver,” West says. “He really helped getting the label going by talking me up to his friends.”
Justin Time’s success is no small feat. There are easier ways to make a living than devoting oneself to recording jazz, blues and gospel in Canada, or most other places for that matter. Making things ever dicier is getting air play for music that’s decidedly not mainstream these days. Oh yeah, on top of all that is the recording industry has gone through a revolution — several of them, in fact — over the last four decades: from vinyl to cassettes to compact discs to digital streaming.
“And it’s back to vinyl again,” the affable West cracks. “Never a dull moment in this business. I guess we’ve been really fortunate to have made it this long.”
“No,” counters Jones. “It’s because you’ve been so good and you care so much about your artists, to let them express themselves and to not impose your will on them — like others might do. You just make all your artists feel so comfortable. You let us feel free to do our music. That’s a real gift.”
“I recall reading an article about the great jazz producer Orrin Keepness, who worked with Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans and Sonny Rollins,” West responds. “Keepness was asked what he did in the studio. He said: ‘I just make people feel comfortable. You’re not going to tell John Coltrane how to play the sax.’ And I’m certainly not going to tell Oliver how to play the piano.”
“I’ve played at least 100 compositions for Justin Time, and while it must have been torture for Jim to listen to everything, he just let be me,” Jones says.
“Trust me, Oliver, it wasn’t torture,” West says.
For their contributions to culture, both Jones and West have been much and deservingly rewarded. Among other laurels, Jones received the National Order of Quebec honour in 1994, earning him the rank of chevalier. He was presented with the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award in 2005. And this year he was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.
For his part, West received the Bruce Lundvall Award from the Montreal International Jazz Festival in 2016 for making a significant contribution to the development of jazz. And last year, he was named a Member of the Order of Canada for his contributions to the Canadian recording industry and for championing Canadian talent.
And let’s not lose sight of the fact that Jones and West, with ample opportunity to move elsewhere, have continued to stay put in Montreal to ply their trades.
“It’s the pride we have in Montreal and the many artists for whom this is home that keep us here,” Jones says. “My music is born from Montreal, as was that of my neighbour Oscar Peterson and his sister and my teacher, Daisy Peterson Sweeney. Montreal will always be home.
“Now I look forward to what’s coming next. There is so much talent here, and it’s just so gratifying to know that, thanks to Jim and others, this talent will also have opportunities to get noticed.”
As fate would have it, Jones is seated in front of the Upstairs piano, and although he insists that he hasn’t tickled the ivories in months — much like he insisted when we met at an art exhibit at the Christ Church Cathedral a year ago yet still played — he breaks into an absolutely inspired rendering of his mentor Peterson’s Hymn to Freedom.
Jones, who turns 89 on Sept. 11, still has the magic touch.
“I’m still retired,” the beaming Jones says following his performance.
His fingers say otherwise. Mercifully.
The 40 Years of Justin Times Records compilation will be released Sept. 8 and can be ordered now at justin-time.com. For information on the coming Justin Time tribute concerts at Upstairs Jazz Bar, go to upstairsjazz.com.
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