360 Degrees of Jazz: Reminiscences of Ken Pickering

Ken Pickering (1952-2018) is a Founder of the Coastal Jazz and Blues Society and the Vancouver International Jazz Festival. His music tastes were catholic, but the hard-core of his life’s work established the clear link between the improvisors of Europe, Vancouver, Canada and the rest of North America. The execution of his artistic vision transformed the music scene in Vancouver, making it into one of the jazz capitals of the world. He was not only a tireless presenter of the music, but like Alfred Lion and John Hammond, he had the uncanny ability to recognize and promote musicians with new creative approaches long before they were recognized by the rest of the presenter community and public audience. Misterioso asked Evan Parker, François Houle and Benoît Delbecq to write about their relationships with Ken. This set of essays ends with observations and experiences with Ken by Laurence Svirchev.

 

by Evan Parker, September 2018

When I played at The Western Front in 1978, it was as the final concert in a month long solo tour of Canada and the US. Al Mattes had originally invited me to play at A Space in Toronto but by the time I had a plan for the whole tour in place, A Space had come and gone and the Music Gallery was up and running. I think it was Henry Kaiser who acted as go-between for fixing the Vancouver concert, sharing the bill with the Rova Saxophone Quartet. 

Ken Pickering at Black Swan Records was already selling Incus Records. It’s a long time ago and the details have faded but I remember visiting the shop and met Ken there for the first time. I stayed with Ken and he made sure I enjoyed my first brief visit to Vancouver. He was the perfect host, generous with his time and hospitality. Perhaps of all the special moments the one most clearly etched in my memory was playing the Cultch [local lingo for the Vancouver East Cultural Centre] with the Dedication Orchestra. It must have taken some great negotiating skills to arrange for a band that size to come from the UK. The power of those South African melodies in the arrangements by Kenny Wheeler, Mike Westbrook and John Warren just brought so many strands of our collective efforts together and carried that message of love and optimism straight to people’s hearts. Unforgettable. Thank you Ken!

© Evan Parker

by François Houle, September 2018

Since moving to Vancouver in 1990 I forged a special relationship with Ken Pickering. We spent hours together listening to music and discussing it. He would share his knowledge about its history, aesthetic trends and currents, punctuating this with personal stories and anecdotes. Ken was a scholar of creative music, with an encyclopedic knowledge and insatiable curiosity for facts. But furthermore, he was a lover of the music and had a deep respect for the people who created it. With no formal musical training, he instinctively felt his way into the music, educating himself through avid listening and reading, but most importantly by interacting and forging friendships with musicians.

Throughout the years Ken has encouraged collaborations of all sorts between local musicians and their peers from around the world. He would go out of his way to pair established artists with local musicians who grabbed his ears during his many outings to concerts.  Thanks to him I’ve had the amazing opportunity to not only share the stage with many of my musical heroes, such as Steve Lacy, Evan Parker, and George Lewis (to name a few), but also to forge life-long friendships with many of them. For example, I’ve been collaborating with legendary French bassist Joëlle Léandre and pianist Benoît Delbecq for more than 25 years. F

I know he extended the same care and attention for many musicians and organizations in the community. Always looking to help out, no matter if you were a young upcoming musician or a veteran of the scene, he would go out of his way to make things happen. Such were his convictions that, in his 30-some years as artistic director, he helped put Vancouver on the international creative music map as a centre of activity on a  par with Paris, Chicago and New York.

It’s this unselfish quality that defines long-term friendships, that moves us to engage in new life experiences and to share ideas. If Ken Pickering’s mentorship has taught me one thing, it’s to trust the process and seek out people who will push you to see things in new ways. If one is surrounded by such people, good things happen.

© François Houle 

 

by Benoît Delbecq

The first time I heard the name of Ken Pickering was at Steve Lacy’s apartment in Paris, rue du Temple, in 1992. Steve had called me to pay him a visit for he had to tell me something. I was so intrigued and secretly wished he was thinking about offering a gig with him. Eventually, we did play a gig together, about a year later, with the Kartet collective.

But I knew very well that he was totally faithful to his guys and of course to a fellow pianist I loved, Bobby Few.  It made it even more intriguing ! I had sent him my first record (“Hask” by Kartet) and I was wondering what he was up to. I knew Steve for a while as I was a regular listener when he played in town with his groups or in duo with Mal Waldron. Steve had already strongly recommended me to the Banff Center Jazz Workshop 4-5 years earlier. He and Mal Waldron were definitely my two guardian angels since my late teens. 

When I arrived at Lacy’s place, we sat down and he went straight to the point. “I’m really fond of your music. Now with the music you’re doing and are going to craft in the future, you will have enemies. You have to watch out, always be able to pay the nut [Lacy slang for The Rent]. But I asked you to come because I’m now going to give you a list of names of people, presenters, around the world to whom you’re going to send your record.”  I was amazed by Steve’s commitment to getting my work introduced to major presenters around the world. Then we talked about Mark Rothko’s paintings as well as “tâchisme’, the pictural movement, and about the painter Sam Francis who was then living in Paris. Lacy was that kind of guy, living in the world of art he could talk about any aspect of artistic creation. 

One of the eight to ten names on Steve’s contacts list was Ken’s. I wrote a brief letter to Ken and sent him the CD. I think that within a month or even less I got this phone call from him. At first I remember I was at pain to understand his strong accent, and the quality of telephone line didn’t help. He said he’d heard about me from Steve Lacy. He said he’d like me to come over play my music at the Vancouver festival, and more extensively, tour Canada. I was really amazed by his sincere enthusiasm.

He said we’d have to work on looking for travel funds from the French AFAA and other sources. I replied I was not at all in this artistic seraglio and added, “I doubt I could get funding like that, because it’s likely controlled by the agents of some well-introduced French players”. He had a big but big laugh – the first time I heard his booming laugh, and that’s something you can never forget from Ken’s existence! Then he said “It’ll take the time it’ll take, but we’re going to start to work on this now.”

Indeed it took another 3 years I before I first played at the Vancouver Festival, in 1995, with The Recyclers. I had played the year before at the Glass Slipper, in the winter, as The Recyclers were Corin Curschellas’ backing band on her North-America tour. After 1995, I came back so many times!

Later when Christine and Ken would hang in Paris a couple of times, I’d cook something at home. We’d hang and laugh and listen to some music and talk about the newer generations or just tell stories. Ken and Christine became friends, it is as simple as that. Of course I’d also bump into him at so many festivals in Europe where he was checking so much music and he often gave me a list of younger players to check out, and I always did !

Ken had so much esteem for so many improvisers around the world. I think he first of all liked the player’s freedom, from the ICP crew to Steve Lacy to the Scandinavians and the Brits, etc. He liked the undocile, the type-setters. You can draw a continuous line through the whole globe and cross the location of the musicians he liked and tried to have perform at the Festival. And he recommended them to other festivals, it was an integral part of the way he promoted the music and musicians. It included older guys of course, but also newer guys like I was then. When he first called me I was only 25 years old – Ken didn’t count the number of years, he was attracted by new approaches and he was a real lover of the whole history of this music.

Finally Vancouver has become for me a second home town, so to speak, and that’s because of Ken Pickering and of course Steve Lacy in the first place. This said, I had met Tony Wilson in 1990 at the Banff Center and later met François Houle at Tony’s barbecue, marking the beginning of a collaboration that happily still goes on. Also, most important, in 1995 I met Tony Reif from Songlines Recording at the Vancouver Fest, and within 20 years we produced together something like 12 records of mine plus collectives like Kartet or Poolplayers, the duo with Andy Milne, and François of course, most of the more personal records of mine if you think about it. Along the way I made other deep friends in Vancouver through all these years, including an old friend of Lacy and JJ Avenel: a great friend named Laurence Svirchev. 

The loss of Ken is so huge for me and, of course, for a worldwide scene of creative music. I miss this great guy and friend so much. I was so happy I could make it to his memorial a few weeks ago. I spent beautiful days there. The music I heard and played was beautiful. The vibe around this couple of memorial days was joyful and graceful. Ken’s gone but the spirit he propelled in his lifetime of achievement is beating hard in so many people. That spirit will keep beating hard in the future. On this scene he was simply one of the greatest, at the forefront in knowledge of the scene which is an immense archipelago of creative ideas. 

May this beat prevent the newer generation of presenters away from the idea of “sexy” music and/or “efficient” or “music that works” (for the masses), as some say. May they keep presenting music where the true fever for music stands, and the new sensations crafted by human beings in adventurous approaches of music that stand out above everything.

© Benoît Delbecq

 

The Ken Picketing Persistence Phenomena

by Laurence Svirchev

Sometime in the 1980s, I walked into a wooden floored shop at 2936 West Fourth Avenue Vancouver, corner of Bayswater. The west-side skin of the building was painted in a distinctive burnt sienna, covered by seven jazz musicians, some of them portrayed in folksy farm-boy cottons, a couple of the figures looking a bit more modern. I recall the handmade wood shelves,  making it easy to flip through the huge array of 33⅓ rpm LPs. In those days, you could actually read liner notes and get yourself educated. 

You could happily navigate car-wise in downtown Vancouver during those years. The hardcore went for the books if one could find them, mainly at David’s Albion Books and MacLeod’s on Seymour St. For daily consumption, Whitney Balliett wrote for the New York Times and Nat Hentoff for the Village Voice, magazines hard to find in Vancouver in pre-digital times. But reading the liner notes on a 33⅓ rpm LP while browsing in a real store was the most accessible and leisurely way.

That day in Black Swan I didn’t know that the genial reserved guy behind the counter was a walking, talking jazz history book, ten steps more knowledgeable than the already knowledgable guitarist Bob Bell who curated the upstairs record emporium at A&B sound. But in those years I knew nothing of jazz except a few names. As a teenager in a New York City suburb, I had joined the Columbia Record Club. The LPs I remember were Brubeck’s Time Out, Bob Brookmeyer and Friends, and Straight No Chaser by Monk (which took about 20 years for me to dig). 

But there was a name I did know, and that was Oscar Peterson. A few years earlier, living in Montréal, I was a chipper-grinder on the graveyard shift at Allis Chalmers in the suburb Lachine (when the French explorer LaSalle bot to the rapids way upstream on the St Lawrence River, he thought he had arrived in China). After-shift I’d and step off the bus at Rockhead’s Paradise on St Antoine’s Street, slug a beer, and listen to a guitar trio led by Nelson Symonds. In conversation with Nelson in between sets, the names OP and Lynton Garner would frequently come up.  

As I was flipping through the LPs  in Black Swan, I saw something called Lester Young with the Oscar Peterson Trio and thought, “Why Not?” I asked the man behind the counter if the album was any good and he gave me a look that signified, ‘Oh course it’s good, otherwise it wouldn’t be in my shop.’ Then he said flatly, “Yeah, it’s good.” The way he said it, a little too nonchalant, left me a tiny bit rattled and that rattle lingers today. Because he knew things I didn’t. The most significant part was what he didn’t say: “But if you want the hard core stuff, it’s also there, but you have to look and ask.”  Ken was always ready to talk music and share ideas from that universal language. All I had to do was ask for some recommendations and my music education would have accelerated. Later I adopted some of Ken’s lingo: ‘hard core’ was part of his vocabulary. But that day I didn’t read him right.

There was lots of accessible jazz in Vancouver those years, a number of bars where for the price of a beer you could hear really good singers and instrumentalists doing standards and more. Not so different than Rockhead’s Paradise in Lachine except the skin color of the musicians was typically different and the hookers more discreet. The musicians had real, studied chops, Vancouver musicians who were serious about their Ellington, Monk, Mingus, Miles, Clark Terry.  Cats like Alan Matheson, Ken Lister, Rene Worst, Kathy Kidd. The vocal instrumentalists among them among them like Kate Hammett-Vaughan, Jennifer Scott, Colleen Savage, and Bonnie Ferguson didn’t wear gardenias in their hair to show how holiday they were. For a small town, there were two large ensembles doing serious original compositions, Hugh Fraser’s VEJI and the NOW collective, not just repertory stuff. There was even a music station with the call letters CJAZ. 

But there was more. That guy over at Black Swan had a head full of full-flush thinking that transformed the presentation of jazz in Canada and put Vancouver on the world musical map. Most North American promoters in those years stayed on the standards and popular jazz musicians, rarely taking chances. There were exceptions, of course especially when it came to artist self-organization as Bill Shoemaker has adroitly outlined in his book Jazz in the 1970s: Diverging Streams. If Ken were a pool shark, he’d have run Minnesota Fats out of town. But Ken wasn’t like that. He’d have invited Fats back for a glass of wine and a friendship match.

When Ken Pickering, Robert Kerr, and John Orysik started presenting the jazz iconoclasts of Europe, Québec, and the US, they also took the radical step of mingling them on the same stages as Vancouver’s outstanding cadre of musicians. The bulk of the presenter community predicated skimpy audiences and bankruptcy. What those presenters didn’t yet understand was that European funding was available to import cultural heroes of France, the UK, Germany, and the Nordic countries. Just as importantly as the funding , there was a hunger to hear musicians like Steve Lacy, Alexander von Schlippenbach, Evan Parker, Paul Lovens, Georg Graewe, Louis Moholo-Moholo, John Butcher, JJ Avenal, Han Bennink, Paul Rutherford (and Torsten Muller’s Homage), Marilyn Crispell, and Gerry Hemingway.

Ken Pickering did know those things, and he wanted to hear that stuff himself in his own hometown. The allies were natural. There were DB Boyko, Hank Bull, Eric Metcalfe of the homey-comfortable Western Front. There was the Glass Slipper and the “grunt”. These three venues could actually house and sell-out a series of year-round concerts featuring the New Orchestra Workshop and the host of Vancouver’s top notch musicians, Chief Feature, Garbo’s Hat, Talking Pictures, and the   New Orchestra Workshop which hosted the likes of René Lussier, George Lewis, Barry Guy, or Butch Morris. In 1986, a trio composed of Bill Frisell, Tim Berne, Alex Cline played the Front as part of the first duMaurier International Jazz Festival. So did the Jay Clayton Trio with Kenny Wheeler and the Steve Lacy Sextet.

This cat Ken was so far ahead of the crowd that no one could catch up to him. He actually listened when in-town musicians proposed collaborations with their network built from European and American musicians. Ken could splice together wonderful combinations of musicians like François Houle with Joëlle Léandre and Raymond Strid who already had a working relationship. A guy like Dylan van der Schyff could transpose himself reliably into many musical context and make the music happen. Pickering was part of a core team which could creatively finance and publicize these affairs. The financial part was fascinating, for there was always a large ensemble at the Festival, the likes of , Paal Nilssen-Love‘s Large Unit, the  Vienna Art Ensemble, Barry Guy’s compositions Inscape – Tableaux and Witch Gong Game II/10 performed and recorded by the New Orchestra Workshop. Year after year, Ken Pickering had the imagination and verve to present the large ensembles that every composer dreams of. Perhaps the heavisest night in recent years for large ensembles was one sold out night at Performance Works: John Korsrud‘s Hard Rubber Orchestra followed by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society.

Expo ’86 was the year that Pickering, Kerr, and Orysik went with big shows, like Miles Davis and in the process creating the annual June-July festival. The festival was converted into legend by Chris Cameron’s bone-chilling photo of Miles telling interloper Wynton Marsalis, “Get the fuck off my stage”. That singular photo alone taught the lesson that experience is converted into history by photography and videography accessible to the public: no photo, no visual memory.

In 1988, Cecil Taylor played the Discovery Theatre at the old Expo 86 site. Going to a Cecil Taylor concert was different than listening to Miles in concert. Taylor was dressed in a yellow jump suit, not the ornate African stylings that Miles favored at that stage of his career.  Taylor didn’t turn his back on the audience like Miles did (to help mask his physical pain from sickle cell anemia). Taylor pranced around the grand piano, spouting a poetry no one understood. When he sat at the piano he started at light speed and stayed at light speed. That music was so dense and fast I never caught a wisp of it. To this day I remember thinking, “please give me just a piece of melody I can understand.” But Taylor was unrelenting. Taylor never again appeared in Vancouver, his price-line was simply too high.

During intermission, a number of musicians who played standards were unanimous: they were flummoxed by Taylor and were leaving. My own reaction was different: there was something intriguing in this music, a mystery that I needed to get a handle on. I remember thinking about an imprint Rahsaan Roland Kirk left on me at the Esquire Showbar in Montréal one frigid January night in February. He finished one fast composition and said “Next I’m going to play something so out there you might say to yourself, ‘What am I even doing here?’ But stick around and open your ears, and maybe you’ll catch up later.” I didn’t catch onto what Rahsaan played that night and here I was several years later with the same feeling. So I stayed for Rahsaan and I stayed for Cecil Taylor’s second set.

‘Dat right dere was the kind of artistic director thinking that Ken Pickering had: put the amazing music right in front of people and some of them will pick up on immediately. Others may take time to catch up, and others will never get it. But the buzz will happen and the audiences will build, especially if there is a judicious combination of the established, the true, and the new upcoming. The perfect example of this was a brilliant programming coup in which the British large ensemble Dedication Orchestra, the cream of UK creative musicians with Moholo-Moholo in the drum chair, played the music of the Brotherhood of Breath. The genius in this was that they played once at the Cultch, and then reprised, opening at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre for Ladysmith Black Mambazo. 

The formula was simple: develop a no-profit community-based society in which the name acts financed the lesser known artists. A small but knowledgeable audience-base was already in place, as Pickering knew from his Black Swan experience. Furthermore, Vancouver had for many years been a home for far-out musicians such as Al Neill and the progenitors of the New Orchestra Workshop, Lisle Ellis, Paul Cram, Paul Plimley, and Gregg Simpson, well before jazz music programs were installed at the local colleges. Ron Samworth and Coat Cooke came later. 

Those were the days when the jazz journalists scorned writing off the publicist’s promo sheet, only using them as background materials. Coastal had the vision to invite to the Vancouver International Jazz Festival ace journalists like Mark Miller of the Toronto Globe & Mail, and Bill Shoemaker, Kevin Whitehead, and Art Lange for the key American jazz press like DownBeat. There was also the greatest print journal of them all, John Norris’ and Bill Smith’s Coda. While he tended to stay on the conservative side of the music as a writer for Vancouver’s daily papers, Stuart Derdyn had the knack of painting in words any music he heard.

Coastal Jazz added another visionary approach: an extensive system of volunteers who put in countless and selfless hours in driving, hospitality, ticket-taking and even cleaning up the filthy backstage rooms at the Commodore Ballroom. Volunteers, in exchange for a few tickets and a wonderful post-festival party, became the lifeblood of the organization and they spread the word. If you put this dynamic into biblical terms, the three apostles had a cadre of missionaries to spread the Word.

There was one in particular concert I remember in the very earliest days. Mal Waldron played with a bassist in one of those sterile theaters in Robson Square. Waldron was a real-deal musician who played from the heart, a total original. Unfortunately, the bass player was loud and obnoxious, trying to control the pianist like some amateur stage lighting guy who is always changing the colors to suit what he thinks the mood of the music should be. I wrote Ken Pickering a polite letter explaining my point of view, then did the same about some other concerts, just expressing a point of view about what I liked and what I thought could be improved, zero proselytizing. After one concert I introduced myself. He was really low key and humble when he said, “So you’re the guy who keeps writing those letters; I really appreciate that. The only other feedback I get is negative.” 

That was the day we became friends for life, the future containing personal events seared into the memory. The most important personal one was the time ChengYing and I decided to get married on short notice. Every year, I had hosted a backyard BBQ for visiting musicians and journalists during the Vancouver International Jazz Festival. We decided that there was a wedding party already organized, so why not do it at the BBQ when so many friends would already be in our backyard? Ken and Shoemaker were ‘best men’ and Wayne Stewart MC-ed the event. Kate Hammett-Vaughan had a gig to announce at the Cultch, but she bicycled over in time to sing our choice of song an a-cappella In My Life (Lennon-McCartney). Ken’s short & astute speech said something like, “When I met Svirch, he was mainly listening to Count Basie…. He’s moved on since then.” What Ken didn’t say was that he had provided the opportunity for hundreds of thousands to “move on” over the years, to hear, enjoy, and be influenced  by the great musicians he presented. Later I had the pleasure of photographing the wedding of Ken and Christine Fedina.

Ken lived well as a guy for whom good food and wine were important. There was the Christmas Eve home-dinner with Christine and Ken cooking lamb, opening an endless supply of robust wines. Carl Chinn, Ken’s right hand man at Festival time and friend of all musicians, kept us happy with his dark humor and keen insight into human behavior. Ken treated us to rarities from his phenomenal 33⅓ LP collection on his formidable stereo system. We were warm and cozy while the heaviest snow storm of the last half century made for a silent night outside.

A truly memorable and tragi-comic night was a dinner chez moi with the visiting wife of a soprano saxophonist. The soprano saxophonist couldn’t make the trip to Vancouver for an unknown reason, but his musician wife kept pestering Pickering for a social night. Gentleman Ken could not ignore his obligations to the saxophonist. So I played the intermediary, picked her up at the Sylvia Hotel and delivered her to my home at 2035 East 2nd Ave, the old railway telegraph station, for a home-cooked meal. When the unnamed wife got inevitably and unbearably drunk I called a taxi and Ken & Christine quietly slipped away. The vocalist and cellist eventually slid into quietude and I got her back to the Sylvia, escaping myself to finally have some wine and collapse in laughter.

Those are some of the private memories that I have, but anyone who was associated with Ken can recite multiple similar occasions. Because Ken truly cared about his associates in the music. He had a total life-style in the music and that’s why my private handle for him became 360 (0of jazz). 

Ken was always way ahead of other North American artistic directors. He had vision and he fought against all odds in the early days to make it come true: the fearless artistic director who first brought so many creative musicians their first high-profile gigs. He made it a point of traveling abroad to listen to the younger musicians who had something to say instrumentally, vocally, compositionally.

Bill Frisell told me in an interview that Ken was the very first promoter in North America to ask him to play his own compositions; until then Frisell could get away with playing his own ideas only in Europe. Ken gave Nanaimo’s Diana Krall a big-stage gig before she became an international star. Way before he known widely in the jazz world, Dave Douglas already had the chops of a veteran when Ken brought him to Vancouver in the Tiny Bell Trio.

Ken was the man who guaranteed that Claude Ranger received the Canada Council grant that allowed him to temporarily rise out of absolute poverty to write the music and lead the Jade Orchestra. Claude is one of those hero musicians who, like Homer, are the stuff of legends. Claude influenced countless musicians but he never really became famous. Many will remember Claude opening an early-year Festival gig for the Charley Haden Quartet West. But Claude’s Band (Rene Worst (bass), Phil Dwyer, Rob Frayne, Perry White on tenor saxophones)) playing a 45-minute Gefilte Fish made the evening worthwhile, it sheer moxie and testosterone making Haden’s beautiful cool sound tame and passé. The recordings Claude left behind are few but the stories many. Mark Miller’s biography of Claude Ranger is the last document demonstrating his genius, and it was Ken who gave Claude the stage presence he deserved.

Ken also treated us to great elders of jazz, like Betty Carter, multiple visits from Sheila Jordan, Max Roach, and Sonny Rollins. I believe it was 1989 when Max Roach played the Cultch with his quartet. The inbound plane was really late but few budged from their seats. There wasn’t even a sound check, for the Cultch in those days with its ancient wood was built for acoustic music. The stage was black when Max sat at the kit and played a heartbeat-rhythm solo to open up. As the lights slowly came up, the rest of the band came out and played with the verve of a 12-cylinder Jaguar on an open highway. Max played two nights in a row, and if memory serves me right he came back twice more, including with his Double Quartet.  

Max was nothing if not a gracious man: he helped us hear Sonny Rollins at the Cultch too. The story goes like this, I’m working from memory. Sonny never played two nights in a row after he married Lucille (his manager). She insisted on one night of gig, a rest day, and a travel day. Sonny blew so hard he needed that downtime. So when Coastal tried to book him for two consecutive nights at the Cultch the answer was “no possibility.” The economic rationale was that Rollins had not been to Vancouver in a long time, so the possibility of booking a major theatre could a recipe for disaster. The idea was to build an audience first, and then do the Commodore later for a major audience. 

Coastal contacted Max Roach for an assist and he graciously gave a good reference to Lucille, who relented on the two-gig rule. It did come about, all of it, two nights in a row at the Cultch and later a full house gig at the Commodore, genius programming from Ken Pickering, Robert Kerr, and John Orysik. The moment I remember most was Rollins elevating his tenor in the Cultch during Don’t Stop the Carnival blowing a sustained set of undertones, perfectly controlled. The stage didn’t just rise, for the entire wood house vibrated and rose.

Ken lived in a dream world, but he was not an idealist. He was a hard-core pragmatist that made his dream world come true step by step. He managed to establish the regular presence of the Dutch improvisers like Michael Moore and Han Bennink, British like Evan Parker, Steve Beresford, Barry Guy, Germans like Georg Graewe and Alexander von Schlippenbach. Vancouver had become a universal musical family, nationality being of little consequence.

I recall watching numerous people walking out of free gigs in the early years. They weren’t ready for that music, but within a few years the audiences for improvised music were stable and rapidly expanding. Ken also established an annual Derek Bailey-like Meeting called Time Flies at the Western Front. In its later years, it was curated by Torsten Muller and indeed it did fly.

Ken was catholic in his musical tastes. He once mentioned to me that he had two regrets in his career, the first being that in spite of multiple attempts, a concert by Caetano Veloso had never materialized. The second was that he had not succeeded in bringing the ICP (Instant Composers Pool) from Holland. But one year, bam! there was Caetano Veloso and eventually we got to hear Misha Mengelberg and the ICP three times. Ken could hear these musicians any time he wanted on his programming pilgrimages, but he wanted to present and hear them in his own home town. He knew it took time, social connections, a lot of dinners and good wine to make some things happen. The stylistic differences between Caetano Veloso and Misha Mengelberg might flummox some, but for Ken Pickering they were simply the greatest of musicians. I call his drive to make such concerts happen the Ken Picketing Persistence Phenomena.

Ken could take a lot of public heat for his decisions. There was one year where he showcased Vancouver’s phenomenal drummer Dylan van der Schyff, already a veteran of the international jazz scene. But some puppy-dog of a local drummer went public with a letter directly accusing Ken of playing personal favorites and not giving other musicians worthwhile gigs. I saw Ken’s face tighten when this junk went public. He was physically in pain, momentarily shattered. The accusation was false. Ken regularly featured Vancouver musicians who had already earned their reputations among fellow musicians and the listening public. He never featured musicians who could not fulfill their role. But he never wore that hurt in public, never failed to present his beatific face to the public. And he did not bear grudges.

In 2010, I began working much of the year abroad, tethered but slowly drifting from the Vancouver music scene. The last time I saw Ken was in the Spring of 2018, and for the first time since 1989, I totally missed the Festival in 2018. I never had the chance to say goodbye, even at his memorial meeting.

When I think about all those years of knowing Ken, I come away with several qualities that he owned. Firstly, he loved the music and the musicians. He got to know them as individuals not just  in his professional role of saying hello in the backstage pre-concert encounters. He did it though personal encounters on down-time and travel-time, always building friendly network. He had an intuitive feel for what would work and what would not. He trusted musicians because he believed in their artistic integrity: He could go out on a limb for them, trusting instinct honed by decades of experience.

One of his last great programming coups was in 2015, the Louis Moholo-Moholo Quartet to Vancouver for one show at the Iron Works. Moholo-Moholo came all the way from South Africa. Alexander Hawkins, John Edward and Jason Yarde blew for a non-stop 94 minutes.

He knew from his years of experience that presenting the music at its highest level was always a struggle. One of the biggest and most consistent challenges was finding the appropriate executive director, and more importantly an artistic director for the future who knew the ins and outs of the business. He knew from his age and the strength of his own body that the economy of music and the audience social factors had changed. So he began a well-thought out program of mentoring to ensure, especially, that Rainbow Roberts possessed the insider’s knowledge he possessed, but that he would not give away without confidence in the person he had chosen.

Thirdly, he owned the quality of humility. His decades of experience and knowledge provided innumerable anecdotes of the things he did and saw. He was a great story-teller. You knew a good one was coming when he would screw his face into a kind of whimsy, the kind that a kid would do when he was about to play a good on ‘ya, raise the pitch of his voice a half-step, and say, “Hey check this out…..” The punch-line was always delivered with a smile, a pause, and a laugh. But there was never an ounce of ego or swagger in it. He did what he did because he loved doing what he did. He kept it up right to the end, enjoying the fruition of his life’s work right through the 2018 Festival. 

Fare Thee Well, Ken Pickering, wherever ye may be.

©Laurence Svirchev

All photos ©Laurence Svirchev except Black Swan Records (public domain),  wedding, Laurence Svirchev & Ken Pickering by Chris Fedina.

Note: Tom Hawthorn wrote an in-depth biography of Ken Pickering’s early years:

http://www.v1.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20180910.OBPICKERING/BDAStory/BDA/deaths

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