Sunday, February 19, 2012
When I began writing stories about performing artists here on Gabriola I was drawn to Lloyd Arntzen primarily because of his performances of New Orleans Jazz once a month at Raspberry’s Jazz Café. There was, however, a second reason. I have known Lloyd’s name for many years as the writer of a song which has joined the Canadian Folk Music canon entitled “Where The Coho Flash Silver.” As our interview progressed it was further revealed to me that Lloyd Arntzen has many other facets to his being apart from his musical endeavours. They include a facility for writing and telling stories, teaching, boat building, and wood working. I got the distinct feeling that my brief time with Lloyd barely scratched the surface of a life that has been dedicated to a path of discovery and creativity.
Lloyd Artnzen’s sense of history seems to be an important part of his nature, and as we talked informally to begin the interview he mentioned that his own father’s history had been documented in a book by Rolf Knight entitled “The Stump Ranch Chronicles.” This book includes a biography of Lloyd’s father, Arnt Arntzen, told in the first person, and another fisherman’s story as well, that of Ebe Koeppen. This book can be found on the net in PDF format at http://www.rolfknight.ca/Stumpranch_Chron.pdf. The book is popular enough as Canadian history to also have been produced as an audiobook and is readily available at many online stores.
Lloyd continued with a discussion of how it was a very valued gift to be able to tell a story, especially in his father’s era before mass media. At that time anyone who could tell a story, oral history, or humorous and/or cautionary tales, was an asset to the community. Lloyd chuckled that the gift of the storyteller is to know what is “interesting.”
With that sense of history and story telling in mind, we began at the beginning with his father’s immigration from Europe to New Orleans in 1907 at the age of seventeen. He landed on a British freighter working as a sailor and decided, because of the shortage of work overseas, to skip off the boat and remain in America. This unfortunately left him with no pay. The only asset he had in hand was a gold watch.
“And if that wasn’t enough,” Lloyd laughs, “he got swindled out of that by an American con-man.”
A twinkle comes to Lloyd’s eye when tells of a recent visit to New Orleans. He told his sister he visited the very pier on which his father’s boat had landed and the very restaurant where his dad had washed dishes for a living.
His sister said, “Well Lloyd, how do you know it was that restaurant and that pier?”
His eyes grew brighter and his response was , “Well it had to be!”
At that point I knew I was at the mercy of an imagination determined to share its own vision and its good-natured excitement and celebration of life. In this light we journeyed through the interview, but not before having a good laugh about hyperbole being a necessary ingredient to telling a story, not just a good story, but a great one.
Lloyd says his Dad lasted less than a year in New Orleans when he got a job on a Mississippi steamer plying between New Orleans and St. Louis. He left the boat in St. Louis when he heard about work on the railways in Canada and came up to work on the building of the Grand Trunk Railway down through the Fraser River Valley. Lloyd explains that all the supplies came in from the east and that there were supply camps every ten miles all the way down the Fraser for about two hundred miles to Hell’s Gate. They built the railway in both directions so that as Lloyd’s father floated supplies down the Fraser to Hell’s Gate, the rails were being built simultaneously from Vancouver on up to Hell’s Gate. The barges from the east were broken up at Hell’s Gate and the crew hiked back the two hundred miles to the eastern rail head. They didn’t have to carry supplies as they would stop at the camps every ten miles or so for food and stop after approximately thirty miles for the day.
His dad was a very enthusiastic amateur musician who was a very good singer and played guitar, flute, and accordion. He had a repertoire of American novelty songs and he also sang in German, Swedish and Norwegian. Lloyd says his father was always playing music with someone in the community and thus Lloyd grew up with music all around him.
“He was very ambitious for me and wanted me to be able to sing. I always say as a joke that had I not been able to sing my father would have exposed me on the hillside!!”
Thus Lloyd was doing concerts from the time he was three years old. He remembers his father driving he and sister 100 miles to Saskatoon to sing on the radio. He smiles at the suggestion that his father was a bit of a “stage dad” but adds, “He was, very much so!”
At that time Lloyd and his family lived near Fisk, Saskatchewan, about forty miles south of Rosetown, between Rosetown and Eston and about 100 miles south of Saskatoon.
I asked Lloyd my favourite interview question about when or if he made a decision to make music his livelihood.
“My father got me a violin when I was about 6 and we had very good violinist living about 2 miles away who gave me lessons. Although I could do it well, as a child, it didn’t hold my interest. It wasn’t until High School that I really decided music was what I wanted to do.”
Lloyd finished his High School in Rosetown where there was no music, sports, or arts programmes. Undaunted, he and his friends formed a band and played for school functions. He decided violin was not a powerful enough voice to play with the rest of the band which contained trumpet, piano, and drums so he acquired a clarinet and taught himself to play.
Given his virtuosity on the clarinet, one might think that he had studied the instrument formally, but in fact Lloyd is self-taught.
In 1946 Lloyd’s family left the farming communities and moved to Vancouver but not, he says, without some regret.
“They fought their way through the great depression and the great drought. All of that struggle was wiped with one single event: War in Europe. And the rain fell at the same time. In 1939 they had what they call a ‘bumper crop’ of wheat in Saskatchewan, forty bushels to the acre. The price was sky high and in a single year they wiped out ten years worth of debt."
“My dad thought it would be a good idea to stay there now that they had kind of got that ‘beat’ and felt they built something up, but my mother was having none of it and was determined to have neighbours!!”
And so the move to Vancouver proceeded where Lloyd’s father got himself a small fishing boat, a trawler, after which he fished for the rest of his life.
At that time Lloyd was off to University of British Columbia to study engineering but in his last couple of years of High School, as mentioned, he had discovered New Orleans Jazz.
“That is when I really began to practice.” At UBC he joined the jazz society and met a cornet player and they played New Orleans Jazz together.
At this point Lloyd harkens back to a story he considers ironic. His father had asked him one day when they were still in Saskatchewan what it was Lloyd was going to do when he finished High School. Lloyd explains that he got very excited and told his father he wanted to be a musician. After his father had given so much encouragement, planned engagements, and driven him to so many performances, Lloyd expected his dad to be overjoyed. Instead he said, “Oh hell Lloyd, don’t do that! There’s no money in it!”
“After all those years!” Lloyd laughs.
But the career as an engineer was not to be, and Lloyd went to work in the shipyard for a year or two and then went to normal school. There he got a teaching degree and began his career teaching music. He later did a stint as a carpenter, and then as a musician (see below) but finally returned to teaching music in schools which he did until retirement.
While in Vancouver, after he ceased studies as an engineer, Lloyd continued to play his beloved New Orleans Jazz, but got jobs singing folk music on the radio.
“It was during the folk music era in the late fifties and early sixties and I had a show of my own on CBC Radio called “Songs They Sang,” It was all the songs the railroad men, the sailors, and the loggers sang. Lloyd played at several coffee houses but he says he avoided writing folk songs at the time –a wry smile appears - “So that there would be no chance of my making money at it!”
He explains his jazz friends and he looked somewhat askance at the folk scene as they felt there was some pretty pretentious stuff going on. Lloyd and his cornet-playing friend Ean Hay began to write witty folk-like songs, the titles of which, as Lloyd explains now, would be “politically incorrect.” It was their plan to foist these songs off on the public as authentic folk songs. Though the songs were written, the broadcasting plan did not come to fruition he chuckles.
“I had another spell on radio and that went 15 years. It was a weekly series designed for elementary school teachers who were expected to teach music but did not have any music in them. It was called Sing out (Like the folk music magazine SINGOUT!). The ministry of education financed it and booklets were sent out with all the lyrics to the songs to the schools."
Then Lloyd would on-air sing the song and teach it to the children and it would be broadcast into the schools.
At the time Lloyd was teaching full time music, doing the radio show once a week, and playing two or three times a week because of the abundance of live music gigs. Lloyd also sang with the Clark Brothers in the seventies, who modeled themselves after the Clancy Brothers.
“I can sing you every rebel song ever written.”
We talked about recording and laughed about the number of CD’s we still had of music that we made. Lloyd talked about the early days as a musician in the fifties when you could go down to the CBC, audition, and if they liked you, you got on the radio. You didn’t even need a business card. Of course these days you have to be recorded and often CD’s by independent artists arethe modern business card.
In 1971 when Lloyd’s father was still fishing and he was approaching his 80’s. He told Lloyd that someone should write a song about when the Coho are flashing silver on Silva Bay. (Silva Bay had been one of Lloyd’s father’s favourite fishing spots.) Lloyd took the idea and came up with “Where The Coho Flash Silver.” “Lloyd jokes that “Silva” wouldn’t scan with the silver” Then I wrote a second folk-like song which was “Take One Last Look Behind” or “Saskatchewan Farewell.”
“I have about 20 songs that I have written. My daughter Holly started to sing the Coho Song.”
In the nineties Lloyd’s son Tom decided they should get these songs down for posterity and they recorded Lloyd’s CD “Where The Coho Flash Silver” with eleven of Lloyd’s original tunes on it.
“I got a phone call from a nephew who phoned me out of the blue who said he just had to phone me up because his daughters came home singing “Where The Coho Flash Silver All Over The Bay.’ I asked them where they had learned it and it turned out they were taught the song at school.”
“I’d like to get out and play my folk music but I would have to practice” Lloyd chuckles, and I have to maintain my clarinet!”
After discussion of Lloyd’s folk music the talk turned to his storytelling. Lloyd recalls a song he used to sing when he and Grant Simpson, stride piano player, toured together. It was called “Born 40 Years Too Late,” a jazz tune. This story of the song in rough terms involves Lloyd explaining how New Orleans jazz came to Bad Lake Saskatchewan via a flood which misdirected a Mississippi steam boat to the South Saskatchewan River and how a farmer of Norwegian descent, Ole Bomstad (the name of a real neighbor) discovered a 7 piece band on the deck and ran to announce the coming of New Orleans Jazz to Saskatchewan…well, you get the idea. The real Ole Bomstad’s son heard this story on CBC one day and was surprised to hear of his father’s musical influence!!. These stories are part of Lloyd’s stage act when performing New Orleans jazz. The band plays in the background as Lloyd narrates. Lloyds’s version of “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” becomes a story song which, in his own words, "plagiarizes" the great speeches of western politics. Salted with biblical references, it is the story of the creation of New Orleans Jazz and the blessing of all clarinet players being created equal!! If that doesn’t peak you interest, nothing will. Lloyd speaks with glee as he references these stories he creates, told with down-home and wholesome humour.
Lloyd says the story telling grew out of reminisces that he thought would make good fodder for a story, and he distributed these among the family. The narratives then took on a life of their own as they found their way through Lloyd’s imagination onto the stage as performance pieces.
He calls his written collection of stories “The Bad Lake Chronicles.” He confesses that he has too many interests to devote much time to writing.
“I lived in Vancouver up until 2006 where I had taught in West Vancouver, Burnaby and in Vancouver” Then I started playing after retirement and was called to play festivals in Sun Valley Idaho and other places with the Dixieland Express from Victoria, a seven piece traditional jazz band. I was still living in Vancouver so I was doing a lot of commuting. The band was playing traditional jazz festivals, mostly in the United States, but there was a big one in Victoria as well. We used to play at Herman’s Jazz club (a landmark in Victoria) and still do. There Lloyd met his wife Nancy who used to manage Herman’s and they moved to Gabriola a few years ago. Lloyd explains that his mother and father had a recreational property here on Gabriola which is still in the family, and so he had been coming up to spend time quite often. He and Nancy found their own home and moved here.
He then went on to describe the numbers of traditional Dixieland jazz festivals, waning now because of aging demographics, but at that time Lloyd says there must have been 50 festivals on the west coast, one every week.
"Victoria was very large and perhaps 30 bands would come from all over North America and Europe. Sacramento was the largest one at the time I started participating. I have played in Seaside Oregon, Astoria, Tucson, Arizona. They were everywhere."
Prior to the interview I had heard much talk on Gabriola about the three generations of Arntzens, Lloyd, his son Tom, and his grandson Evan and I asked Lloyd about it.
“My grandson Evan is a very gifted and accomplished reed player and I gave him his first clarinet and two saxophones, gave him lessons and encouraged him a lot. He became an absolutely stunning player. So then his father, my son, Tom, who is a professional musician in Vancouver, came up with the idea of 'Three Generations of Jazz.' Tom is a jazz player who makes his living playing corporate gigs and conventions playing singable popular music of his clients. Evan, 27, can play contemporary jazz but plays New Orleans jazz with equal ease."
“It is uncanny,” beams Lloyd.
“It isn’t that he prefers one over the other as he feels it is all music and all good in some way or another.”
So the three of them started, but later they began including Evan’s mother, Lloyd's daughter-in-law Georgina, a fully professional singer. Lloyd’s son Leif, who is a trumpeter and lives in Manhattan, and Leif’s son Miles, who is primarily drummer, all get together. For the last 7 or 8 years they have been doing concerts in New York City. They have also played in Europe where Lloyd has relatives who are professional musicians. The last one was done in New York had eight Arntzens on stage: three sons, three grandchildren, a daughter in law and Lloyd together with a New York bass player.
"We do those concerts fairly frequently and have been at the Highline Ballroom for the last 5 years . The event is a charity for a children’s hospital and the gig has approximately 800 attendees annually."
To finish off I asked Lloyd how he got connected to Raspberry’s.
“The Three Generations band played a concert at the Surf Lodge a few years ago and Victor Anthony was setting up the sound. Victor invited me to take part in the Commons Annual Fund Raiser which Victor plays and organizes. I met Steve (Smith) at the Commons event and came down to Raspberry’s to hear the band.”
One thing led to another and Lloyd ended up playing at Raspberry’s with Victor and Ken Capon.
We talked about Raspberry’s Jazz Café on Gabriola, and the quality of music found here on the island. We both marveled at the lack of pretension and sincerity of the music that happens here.
“It’s quite charming sitting here listening to Steve Smith. You look out and feel like you are in a nice little town, but it could be Greenwich Village for God’s sake!”
Lloyd has lived here on Gabriola for 5 years but is still quite busy going to festivals to play and to play in Vancouver where he plays with his band the Red Onion Rhythm Kings, again a New Orleans jazz band.
Lloyd and I ended our discussion with philosophical musings of how a life is lived, particularly a life in music and the variations that can happen. He has accomplished much. He is an avid wood-worker and at one point in his life constructed a 36 foot steel schooner and did a lot of sailing. He reflected on how a path can seem obscure but his advice is this:
“Always pursue what you like. Never mind whether there is a future in it or not, always go for it.”
© Tim Harrison, December 18, 2011
Photo of Lloyd by Marlene Madison, Jazzstreet Magazine, Vancouver