February 20, 2013

Hillsburgh sax player recalls his adventures

As published in The Erin Advocate

James Kelso is going on 97 this year and is still going strong, thanks in part to the lively music that has been woven through his life.

He lives at the Hillsburgh Rest Home on Trafalgar Road, worships just across the road at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church and is supported by many friends and good memories.

He was raised by his grandparents, on a farm outside Guelph at the time, near today's Bullfrog Plaza. He remembers doing lots of chores, taking care of his pet horse Dan, and going to school in the basement of the British Methodist Episcopalian Church on Essex Street.

His grandfather James was both a thundering preacher and a bootlegger – the latter resulting in the family moving away from Guelph. They ended up on a farm outside Montreal.

While Kelso was in school, grandpa always insisted on A's, and grandma got him started playing the piano. He played the clarinet in school, but the saxophone became his main instrument. Learning French threw him for a bit of a loop, but he adapted well to the environment.

"In high school, it was like a big honour to be the only black person," he said. "I was treated with respect."

Kelso worked his way through McGill University in the 1930s, becoming the first black to graduate from the music program there. That's an achievement worth noting during Black History Month, which has been celebrated each February in Ontario for the past 20 years.

He went on to earn a Masters degree, and a place in the lively music scene that flourished in Montreal during the 1940s. It was the city that launched Oscar Peterson to stardom, and a favourite spot for musicians like Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra.

Kelso played in different bands at famous hotspots such as Rockhead's Paradise (the first black-owned club in Canada), the Esquire Showbar and Chez Paree.

"I had a whole lot of fun," he said. "People came just to see me."

Montreal had become a North American entertainment capital, with big names like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker jamming with the locals. Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Jimmy Dorsey brought their dance bands to Montreal clubs. Various forms of jazz, blues, swing and bebop flourished, along with burlesque nightclubs and vaudeville shows.

Kelso was not just a jazz musician, but adapted to whatever style was popular with audiences. He often encountered people, however, who assumed that his talent was linked to his race.

"They'd say, 'All you people can do music' – they were brainwashed to think that," he said. In his career he did encounter discrimination, discovering that he couldn't make the same money as a white musician.

"They wanted you to play, but they didn't want to pay," he said, though he did do a bit better touring in New York State. He taught others to play, was involved in recording projects, and also toured in England. He returned to Ontario, and worked as a cook at a hotel and the University of Guelph.

"I had many jobs," said Kelso. "You had to go with the flow. But I was involved with music all my life."