Swinging in Paradise: The Story of Jazz in Montréal

By Witmer, Robert | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 1989 | Go to article overview

Swinging in Paradise: The Story of Jazz in Montréal


Witmer, Robert, Canadian University Music Review


JOHN GILMORE. Swinging in Paradise: the Story of Jazz in Montréal. Montréal: Véhicule Press, 1988, 322 pp.

John Gilmore begins his exhaustively researched and engagingly written account of jazz in Montreal from the World War I period to the 1970s by asserting that: 'For almost half a century, more jazz was made in Montreal than anywhere else in Canada' (p. 13). That claim cannot be disputed, at least not at present, since histories of jazz in other parts of Canada are as yet nonexistent. The makings of such accounts are present in Miller's two volumes on Canadian jazz musicians (1987 and 1982) and in McNamara's and Lomas' overview of Canadian dance bands (1973) but Gilmore is 'first on the block' with a regionally delimited study.

Gilmore provides an admirable model for anyone who might attempt a history of jazz in Toronto, Vancouver, or wherever. He has culled an impressively wide range of documentary source materials and conducted numerous telephone and face-to-face interviews in the preparation of his study. (In this regard, the bibliography of Swinging in Paradise is deceptively cursory: only the major sources are listed there, many others being carried in the endnotes, which run to 23 pages.) He lends an immediacy and authenticity to his account by quoting his informants/subjects extensively, and he includes numerous photographs of musicians, venues, and reproductions of promotional material and memorabilia. In sum, in terms of ferreting out and exhibiting the 'evidence,' Gilmore's study is first-rate.

Swinging in Paradise is a descriptivist work - 'another territory heard from' (to paraphrase Geertz 1973: 23); but a number of the author's underlying assumptions are nonetheless in evidence. For example, Gilmore is of the opinion that 'Canadian trends in music follow closely those in the United States, though generally at a cautious distance' (p. 114). This staunchly diffusionist view, in combination with Gilmore's tacit general allegiance to the 'jazz is black music' camp of jazz scholarship, results in a history that is - to the World War I period at least - essentially the story of black American expatriate musicians bringing 'the sounds of the latest black music' (p. 43) to Montreal. While there is undoubtedly a lot of truth to this, and it is a compelling tale, somehow it is just too pat, especially when considered against the well-documented biracial nature of contemporaneous jazz activities south of the border.

A major strength of Swinging in Paradise stems from Gilmore's conviction that 'an awareness of . . . social conditions can deepen our understanding . . . and enhance our appreciation' [of Montreal's jazz and jazz musicians! (p. 13). He is meticulous and intelUgent in locating his topic in a broad and well-sketched social and cultural context, and in showing the place of jazz in the multifarious professional (and personal) lives of its Montreal practitioners - most of whom, as is pointed out frequently, could not depend solely on jazz for their livelihood.

Gilmore's occasional brief forays into 'impressionist ethnography' (Van Maanen 1988: chapter 5) disclose, in an often poignant way, the limitations and tribulations that bedevil the oral history enterprise. For example, one of Gilmore's elderly subjects, bandleader Myron Sutton, disclaims: ? …

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