Joe Sullivan’s long apprenticeship pays off big time
On Saturday night, Sullivan and his quintet play The Jazz Room featuring songs from his latest CD, Whiskey Jack Waltz. Sullivan is now among Canada’s leading jazz composers, and will be joined on stage by Neil Swainson on bass, Lorne Lofsky on guitar, Andre White on drums and Kirk MacDonald on tenor sax.
The 56-year-old Sullivan is married, lives in Verdun just outside Montreal, teaches in the prestigious music program at McGill University, and is a prolific composer for big bands and small ensembles. He has released seven highly-acclaimed CDs.
Not bad for a young man from Northern Ontario who spent years searching for his musical calling.
In 1982 Sullivan was competing for a place in the Berklee program that teaches composition for movie scores. He always liked writing music, and he figured movie scores would be an interesting way to make a living with his trumpet. The audition was all about jazz and improvisation.
Sullivan did very well in the audition because he was placed in a class of advanced players, and he had to work very hard.
“I started to do a lot of playing, and I suddenly realized I really liked playing jazz trumpet, so I started practising it like a maniac,” Sullivan says in an interview with New City Notes.
“And that’s when I really started being interested in performing jazz trumpet,” Sullivan says. “Before then I liked doing it, but I didn’t see myself as being particularly good at it or advanced, and I really liked the writing way more, but at that point I kind of got the bug.”
During his year at Berklee, Sullivan wrote a lot of music under the tutelage of a big-band writer and trumpet player named Greg Hopkins. Sullivan took lessons from Hopkins, and wrote charts for him.
“He was really good for me,” Sullivan says.
After that year at Berklee Sullivan returned to Montreal, and became a busy, gigging jazz musician.
“I did all kinds of stuff in Montreal. I played with everybody. I started my first quintet with a guy named Francois Theberge, he’s pretty famous now,” Sullivan says. “It was great in those days. I had my own little quintet, started playing around with that. Played in Montreal, played in Ottawa, played in Quebec City. All that stuff. It was great. It was really fun.”
For years, ever since graduating from high school in his hometown of Timmins, Ontario, Sullivan searched for his place in the music world. He was the second-oldest child in a large Franco-Ontarian family. The first music Sullivan heard was his mother singing. She was part of a group called The Four Rasicots Sullivan’s uncle played piano and sang lead vocals, and Sullivan’s mother and two aunts sang the harmonies.
The uncle was a bootlegger in the nearby town of Connaught, about 40 kilometres from Timmins. On bonus-pay days the gold miners from Timmins crowded the train to Connaught for a good time. There was a sawmill, a train station, a hotel and couple of dance halls. Not much else. That’s where Sullivan’s mother was from, and that’s where his parents met and fell in love.
The Four Rasicots played in the hotel and dance halls in Connaught, and in Timmins. They played on the radio. Sullivan’s mother could not read music, and she was determined her children would, so everyone studied piano from an early age with a Grey Nun from the local convent.
In high school Sullivan played in rock bands and wrote a couple of musicals for the school’s annual show. The musicals toured around Northern Ontario, and the young Sullivan found he liked composing. He picked up the trumpet in Grade 11, and taught himself to play a little.
The son of a doctor, Sullivan did well in school and left Timmins to study at the University of Toronto. He started working on a Bachelor’s degree, taking a lot of political science courses. Next to the U of T campus is the Ontario Conservatory of Music. Sullivan wandered in there, and signed up for trumpet lessons with George Anderson.
“I sort of missed the music thing,” Sullivan says.
He was also playing piano and doing arrangements for a woman who sang and recited poetry at different venues in and around Toronto. He also went through a Llewyn Davis phase, writing and performing folk songs in bars, strumming a guitar.
“Cause I liked writing music.”
After a year in Toronto, Sullivan decided to attend the University of Ottawa. Most Franco-Ontarian students from Northern Ontario headed for the U of O, he had friends there, his younger brother was going there too. So he finished his degree at the University of Ottawa – an honour’s bachelor of arts with a concentration in music, classical trumpet.
Sullivan hung around Ottawa for a year, teaching ear training classes at the university, and trying to figure out a way to make a living with his horn that did not involve playing classical music in an orchestra. That’s when he decided on the Berklee program for writing movie scores. After a year in Boston, he was having a lot of fun playing on the Montreal scene.
That’s where he met Charles Ellison and Kevin Dean. Two phenomenal trumpet players and composers. They were a little older than Sullivan, and he looked up to them. And they were both university proffs. So they could make a living playing jazz trumpet and teaching at the university without having to play in R&B bands, rock bands or classical orchestras to pay the bills.
Sullivan was playing in the Concordia big band under the direction of Ellison. Sullivan got to know a lot of musicians his age, including Francois Theberge – a tenor sax player and composer.
“Charles was really good to me. He was a great trumpet player and he helped me a lot. He gave me some pointers. I wrote some charts for that band to feature him. He gave me some lessons, and then he started to send me to sub in the Vic Vogel Band.”
Vic Vogel is a legend in the Montreal jazz scene. In 1967 he started Le Jazz Big Band, and is credited with reviving the big band tradition in Quebec. Vogel is the only musicians to play 20 consecutive years on the stage at the Montreal Jazz Festival. In the early 1980s, Sullivan found himself subbing in Vogel’s band.
Sullivan knew he needed a Masteer’s Degree if he was ever going to be teaching music at a university. So he headed for the New England Conservatory of Music, which has an international reputation for its excellent jazz program.
“It was perfect because I could already play pretty well, and I already had a lot of experience in writing. So when I got there I was able to study with these really world class individual artists like George Russel and George Carzone.”
Carzone is one the leading tenor sax players and composers of his generation. Among many of Carzone’s other students are Joshua Redman and Bradford Marsalis. Russell was an Amercan jazz pianist, composer, teacher and theorist who taught a veritable who’s-who of leading jazz artists. He died in 2009.
After studying under Carzone, Russell and others, Sullivan returned to Montreal where a teaching job at Concordia University was waiting for him. He met the love of his life while studying at the Conservatory, and was now married. It was 1987. After a couple of years he started teaching at McGill on contract – mainly composition and arranging.
In 1993, Sullivan landed a full-time job teaching at Vanier College the CGEP system. It was a good job, full-time, good pay and full benefits. He had time to compose and arrange his own music for his own bands. After seven years, a tenure-track job came open at McGill, and Sullivan go it.
“I was hired to teach jazz composition and arranging. I teach trumpet as well. But my principal role is to direct a big band and teach a graduate level writing course. I love the big bands, it is such a beautiful thing.”
While he loves big bands, Sullivan thought his trumpet playing was started to slip. Too much time directing, composing and arranging for big bands, and not enough playing in small ensembles. So he formed a new quintet, wrote the music and put out another CD.
He regularly gigs in three Montreal clubs, the Diese Onze (French for Sharp 11th), The Upstairs and The Residence Cafe. Beginning Thursday, Sullivan’s quintet plays The Rex in Toronto for two nights. Then he brings the band to The Jazz Room for Saturday night.
It is a rare privilege, he knows, to have the same band playing the same music, three nights in a row. So the Saturday night show at The Jazz Room will be extra special.