“I wasn’t good enough to play. But I loved jazz. And I liked radio, so I thought, maybe I could have a career in broadcasting.”
That worked out.
Thirty-seven years as host of the country’s most important jazz radio program, The Jazz Scene on CJRT-FM in Toronto; more than 250 live jazz concerts presented and broadcast featuring Canada’s best artists, and the 26-hour radio series The Jazz Century. Add in hundreds of other recorded jazz performances, panel discussions, workshops, and multiple awards for contributions to jazz.
The interviews: O’Reilly’s hundreds of interview subjects span almost the entire twentieth century history of jazz: Eubie Blake, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Rob McConnell, Oscar Peterson, Buddy Rich, and on, and on. In Canada, Ted O’Reilly’s name says “Jazz” as much as anyone in music. Musician or not.
“I was raised Catholic in St. Catharines and we lived near the church. I was an altar boy at 8 or 9 years old, and because we lived so close to the church, I would always be given the early Masses to serve as the altar boy. The Catholic church didn’t use choirs very much, and when they did, the congregation didn’t sing. It was very clean, very pristine, you know, very religious.”
“The rest of my family would go to Mass at ten o’clock. I’d already been to church and was home. I’d turn the radio on around ten o’clock, hoping to hear something, and I ran across a live broadcast from a Black church in Buffalo, with the congregation joining in all the Gospel singing. It was SO different from what I had heard the priest do at my church. And I think that’s something that got to me. I thought, wow. It’s still all about Jesus and God, but it’s a different way of expressing it.”
“And then a few years later when I was hearing jazz on the radio, I was hearing that same thing. Whatever I was hearing in Gospel music, I was hearing in the Blues. As a 12-year-old in early 1950s Ontario, we had very little “Black” experience, and that’s the only way it linked for me, was through music.”
“By the time I got to high school, I was a real oddball, because all the other kids were talking about Elvis and all that stuff then. And here I was listening to all these people with funny names. “Count” Basie. “Fatha” Hines. “Duke” Ellington. As a jazz fan, I was all on my own.”
After graduating from Radio and Television Arts at the then-Ryerson Institute of Technology, he landed his first jobs in radio at CKKW in Kitchener and CHIC in Brampton. In Kitchener, he hosted an evening dinner music show for five or six hours a day, six days a week.
“There was lots of Mantovani and Ray Conniff, and I learned a lot about the American Songbook. Sometimes, later at night, no one would be listening, and I could slip in a nice, quieter Maynard Ferguson ballad or something, and no one complained.”
“I remember Count Basie came out with I Can’t Stop Loving You. It was a hit for Ray Charles, but Basie did an instrumental version, and I played it because it was a slower tempo. So, I slipped it in at about 11:30 at night, and when it finished, I got a hotline call from the program director. He said, ‘Don’t do that again.’ I said, ‘but it’s a nice tune and a good recording.’ He said, ‘No, no, I loved it, but it’s four minutes long and you missed a commercial break.’ That was commercial radio in those days.”
To a jazz fan, the list of musicians interviewed by Ted O’Reilly is astonishing - unbelievably lengthy and complete. Taken all together, they are a precious walk through the history of jazz – in Canada and beyond. I recently listened to a complete interview with the great baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams in 1968. O’Reilly worked to create a conversation as opposed to reading from a list of questions; he listened, was not afraid of silence, and gently steered the conversation to topics that revealed as much about the person as they did the musician.
Ellington’s band was playing at the Royal York Hotel’s Imperial Room in Toronto and Duke agreed to an interview with O’Reilly upstairs in his hotel suite between the two shows.
“After the first show I get on the elevator and I go up to the suite, knock on the door, and I hear ‘c’mon in.’ I go in, and there was nobody in the room. It was a suite, with a living room and a bedroom. Then I hear a voice from the bedroom – ‘I’ll be out in a minute.’”
“So I’m setting up my recording machine, and then Duke walks out - nude! He was towelling off, but he’s got no clothes on. And he says ‘Oh, make yourself comfortable, sit down.’”
With some trepidation, the young interviewer sits on the couch, and Ellington sits on a chair next to him.
“So with the towel on his lap, we did the interview. Now THAT was interesting! He was just completely comfortable, and after a few seconds so was I. And he had to be about 70 by then.”
“His road manager gave me 20 minutes with him. We sit down, and WHAM, Buddy was right there, he was really in your face. But he was completely honest and dead on. I asked him who would you drop everything for right now and go to work for immediately?”
‘Basie. Anywhere, anytime.’
And about Rich’s legendary reputation as difficult and sharp-tongued?
“Oh, he might have let a ‘bullshit’ or something slip in once, but other than that, he was cool, he was a pro. After twenty minutes, his road manager wants him to move on to the next interview, but Buddy says, ‘I’m stayin’ here….I finally found a guy who knows what I’m talkin’ about.’”
“I think he knew he was going to a rock radio station next. We ended up doing about an hour. That was nice, to get that applause, so to speak.”
Earl “Fatha” Hines
“It was the second time I’d interviewed him. It was very moving. He had a daughter who had died, and he was still quite deeply grieving about it. Now on stage, he was SO outgoing and flamboyant in a way, so demonstrative. But he was so quiet offstage at that time. I did the interview with him, but I shelved it. It was so, so personal. We were talking about music but he kept veering off. But then you’d see him on stage, in a white suit, flashin’ a big smile. He was a stunningly great piano player.”
During his nearly four decades at CJRT, O’Reilly was the driving force behind roughly 700 live and recorded concerts for broadcast on CJRT, featuring Toronto’s and Canada’s best jazz artists. They constituted a timely boost for the careers of musicians at the centre of Toronto’s evolution into a world-class jazz hotspot.
“There was no place for Canadian jazz musicians to be heard in concert. You could hear them in a club, but you’d be seeing guys like Don Thompson and Bernie Senesky and Terry Clarke backing Zoot Sims. You wouldn’t hear the Bernie Senensky Trio.”
O’Reilly, with CJRT’s support, organized and recorded about 250 shows for The Sound of Toronto Jazz, a free-concert series held in the theatre at the Ontario Science Centre, which donated the venue and its parking lot for use after the Centre closed at 6:00pm. All of these shows were broadcast later on CJRT.
“We did everything from solo piano to the Boss Brass. And that was the concert Dizzy Gillespie came to. He was in the audience. He was playing in Toronto that night, but in between his shows he came out to hear the BB. He loved it. He had to leave five minutes early to make his 9 o’clock show downtown. I saw him later, and he said, ‘Oh man, I love that band, it’s so hot, man!’
“All the musicians agreed to do these shows for “scale.” They didn’t get much money. But they all loved it, because they got a chance to be heard more widely.”
“Toronto jazz musicians were just as talented as those in the much larger cities of New York, L.A., and London. Our best was as good as their best, but they had more. They were bigger cities, obviously. Toronto didn’t have to take a back seat to anybody, though. When the Boss Brass finally went to Los Angeles, the Henry Mancinis and the Artie Shaws stood in line outside the club to get in to hear the band.”
“I am so far removed from it. Things have changed so much. It’s about streaming now, individual tracks…not CDs. Recording changed, and so did the delivery of the music."
“I as a jazz fan like music to happen all at once. Recording has become, you record a drum track and then, you add a guitar track from somewhere else, and then you put in strings later…that isn’t jazz to me. I mean the guitar player may be great – but if they’re not there with a bass player, nodding and grooving with each other, it just becomes like chess pieces. They’re moving around a board, but not playing together somehow.”
“I’ve been out of it for years now, and I’m old, and I’ve got my habits, and the pandemic has shut things down. My career in jazz is over. I’m just an observer now like anyone else.”
“I keep my toes in jazz locally, and that’s about it. When the clubs open up again, I’ll go and hear the players…the young guys, who are now in their 60s! The Bernie Senenskys, Mark Eisenmans, the Mike Murleys. I remember hearing Reg Schwager when he was 16, and he’s 60 now. But to me he’s still a kid!”
“I hate to leave while the music’s playing.”
“It used to drive me crazy in the clubs that people in the audience would get up and leave while the band was still playing. Wait a minute. Just sit there, when the tune’s finished, then get up and leave. It’s so impolite.”
john Macleod on Ted O'Reilly
I first started listening to Ted O'Reilly on the radio when I was around 12 years old. In my opinion he set the standard for what jazz radio should be. His programming featured jazz from every era and he told you who you were listening to, as well as when and where it was recorded. Ted recognized that jazz is an art form that requires collective improvisation and he always identified every musician on a recording, not just the leader.
In my teens I started regularly attending CJRT Science Center concerts which he curated and emceed. These concerts featured local musicians and served as part of my introduction to some of the amazing talent in the Toronto jazz community. A few years later I played my first Science Center concert with the Humber College band and would perform there many times in subsequent years with numerous Toronto groups. It was a special event for a local jazz musician to perform in a concert environment for a large audience, have your music broadcast on the radio, and even reviewed in the newspaper.
Ted's radio show and the concert series he presented were both extremely important to Toronto's jazz scene and are missed.