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His final public performance took place in a century-old barn on his property in May with a band made up of fellow Order of Canada recipients. (Peter Grimaldi)
His final public performance took place in a century-old barn on his property in May with a band made up of fellow Order of Canada recipients. (Peter Grimaldi)

Obituary

Peter Appleyard, ‘one of the giants’ of jazz Add to ...

Peter Appleyard came of age in the swing era, when young people in his native England were going crazy for the rowdy, liberating rhythms of American jazz.

As a percussionist, vibraphone player, band leader and composer, he became a Canadian jazz legend whose death on July 17 was noted in newspapers as far away as Germany, Venezuela, Australia, Switzerland, Japan and, of course, England.

After Toronto’s Jazz.FM91 rebroadcast an Appleyard concert on the radio on the Sunday following his death, the station was inundated with an unprecedented number of calls and e-mails from loyal fans, according to the station’s CEO, Ross Porter.

“Everything about him was so classy,” Mr. Porter said. “He was musical; he understood the repertoire; and he knew how to entertain. He was one of the giants and there are not many left in his league with Oscar [Peterson] gone.”

Flugelhornist and trumpeter Guido Basso, who played with Mr. Appleyard since the 1960s, said, “The world of music has lost a champion and a spark plug internationally.”

Mr. Appleyard was essentially self-taught. His family’s straitened circumstances forced him to leave school as an adolescent to apprentice with a compass maker. Yet he became a consummate professional musician who continued to work with zest until the age of 84 – he played his final concert in May.

He shared the stage over his long career with Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Zoot Sims, Bobby Hackett, Count Basie, Mel Torme and a list of other jazz royalty too extensive to mention.

“I like meeting people very much, even after long journeys and lugging heavy vibes,” Mr. Appleyard once told an interviewer. “I feel very fortunate for a wonderful career. Everything dovetailed, and vibes is an instrument without too much competition.”

He threw his whole body into playing his vibes, sometimes using as many as four mallets, coaxing sounds from his instrument that ranged from sharp as crystals to soft as heartbeats. When he felt he was in the groove, his grin spread bigger and bigger. Jack Batten, a former jazz critic, wrote in The Globe and Mail in 1975: “He’s most reminiscent of Red Norvo in style, given the impeccable taste and the easy rhythmic lift he displays as he glides over his vibes. He maintains wonderful control and fits every little passing nuance into perfect place.”

From piano to drums to vibes

Mr. Appleyard, a cherished only child, was born Aug. 26, 1928, into a working-class family in the seaside town of Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire, England, but later moved to London. His father, Cyril Appleyard, worked as a window washer as well as a draper. His mother, Violet, worked at various jobs from seamstress to building superintendent.

Mr. Appleyard’s lifelong passion for music started early. His son, Peter Appleyard Jr., said his father started taking piano lessons from a neighbour, working odd jobs to pay for them. Eventually he moved over to drums, towing his homemade kit behind him on a trailer behind his bicycle. “My dad had an incredible ability to fix things or manufacture something from an assortment of materials,” Mr. Appleyard Jr. said.

In the early forties, Mr. Appleyard played drums with the Boys’ Brigade, a small youth orchestra, and later with the band Felix Mendelssohn and his Hawaiian Serenaders.

He was learning repertoire from American jazz recordings by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong and their bands, which he often heard in the listening booths of London record shops.

One day he came to the attention of the leader of the Serenaders, who was looking for a drummer and noticed the young man drumming with his hands while listening to a record.

Mr. Appleyard later joined the Royal Air Force and played in RAF dance bands. After acquiring his first vibraphone, he taught himself to master this relatively new instrument.

The vibraphone, or vibraharp, had been invented in the 1920s, and used as a novelty instrument in vaudeville acts until Lionel Hampton, recording with Louis Armstrong, uncovered its musical possibilities.

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