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.
In 1949, Mr. Appleyard moved to the British overseas territory of Bermuda at the behest of a close friend who helped him get gigs as a percussionist at the Princess Hotel and the Elbow Beach Surf Club.
According to his son, it was in Bermuda in his early 20s that Mr. Appleyard truly became a professional musician and set his sights on North America.
Making a name on the airwaves
Mr. Appleyard arrived in Toronto in 1951. Although he could not immediately obtain his musicians’ union card that would permit him to perform, he was not discouraged. He worked selling sporting goods at Simpsons and as an elevator man at the King Edward Hotel, while also studying with Toronto music educator Gordon Delamont, who taught harmony, counterpoint and music theory. The talented young English vibes player was recommended to jazz pianist Calvin Jackson, whose band was a big draw at Toronto’s glamorous Plaza Room of the Park Plaza Hotel.
“In the fifties in Toronto, Calvin Jackson was a rarity – an American, a black man who drove a big white convertible and had a white wife,” recalls writer and jazz aficionado Barry Callaghan, whose father, novelist Morley Callaghan, had been Mr. Jackson’s friend.
Barry Callaghan recalls that on his 15th birthday in 1952, he talked his way into the Plaza Room where he heard Mr. Appleyard for the first time, playing with Mr. Jackson: “My impression was of a callow young man but I was a punk kid myself. His instrument was not generally popular in the early fifties.”
Mr. Appleyard’s first known recording was 1954’s Calvin Jackson at the Plaza Room on the Vik label; he often performed with Mr. Jackson on CBC Radio before he started his own band a few years later. Over the next six decades he went on to have 22 total releases under his own name while appearing on about 60 others, in the estimation of his friend, Toronto jazz historian and broadcaster Ted O’Reilly. In the process, Mr. Appleyard made his instrument known to and loved by a wider public.By the sixties, he was doing well enough to bring over his parents from England. He married JoAnne Gent, whom he had met when she came to hear him at the Plaza Room. After their 1963 wedding, she became his business manager and helper. A daughter, Susan, arrived followed by a son, Peter.
The television age was in full flight and Mr. Appleyard recorded jingles for commercials, as well as “the musical bits behind the scenes,” said Mr. Appleyard Jr., on the quiz show Front Page Challenge, which had a live audience. On the Wayne and Shuster comedy show, he was principal percussionist.
“There were opportunities for live bands to support TV shows – a foreign idea today,” Mr. Appleyard Jr. said.
In 1961-62, with singer Patti Lewis, he hosted Patti and Peter on CBC Radio. He co-hosted Mallets and Brass in 1969 with Guido Basso on CBC Television. And in the late 1970s, his own TV jazz program, Peter Appleyard Presents, was syndicated throughout the United States.
Around the world with legends
Growing up, Mr. Appleyard Jr. frequently saw his father pack his van in the morning with his vibes, timpani, marimba, snare drum and cymbals, come home from work for supper with his family, then change into more formal clothes, shine his shoes and go off to play a gig with his band, usually at the Park Plaza rooftop bar, from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. “He did that six days a week, and never deviated from his standards. He told me, ‘Pete, if I make a wrong note at least I’ll look good.’”
His band members, including piano player John Sherwood, drummer Terry Clarke, guitarist Reg Schwager and bassist Dave Young, loved working with him because he did not hog the limelight and gave others opportunities to solo. “Dad was humble that way,” said Mr. Appleyard Jr.
After an invitation to play with clarinetist Benny Goodman, a demanding musician known as the King of Swing, Mr. Appleyard toured with the Goodman sextet through the 1970s in Europe, Australia and the United States, including appearances at Carnegie Hall in New York. After Mr. Goodman’s death in 1986, he formed a tribute band in his memory.
In the eighties, Mr. Appleyard formed his All Star Swing Band. This ensemble, which toured throughout the world, made a specialty of old jazz and pop favourites. Swing Fever, their 1982 release, sold more than 50,000 copies in Canada and was nominated for a Juno award.
A supporter of the military, Mr. Appleyard toured NATO bases, mostly at his own expense, and flew with his band to the North Pole to give a Christmas concert for Canadian and U.S. service members.
His marriage ended in the 1980s. He met Elfriede Lechner at one of his performances and she became his partner for the rest of his life. The two lived on a verdant farm in Eden Mills, Ont., where Mr. Appleyard kept horses and sheep. He excelled as an equestrian and rode to hounds with the Eglinton Hunt Club, though he never killed a fox. His son treasures a photo of him fearlessly jumping a six-foot high stone fence.
As Mr. Appleyard’s long hair grew white, many honours came his way: the Order of Canada in 1992, the Oscar Peterson award given by the Montreal International Jazz Festival, an honorary degree from the University of Guelph, and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal.
Meanwhile, he continued to perform and delight audiences. According to his manager John Cripton, he had bookings well into next year. “I will play as long as audiences want to hear me,” he told Mr. Cripton.
His last recording was Sophisticated Ladies, released in 2012, on which he played for some of Canada’s finest female jazz vocalists. His final public performance took place in a century-old barn on his property in May before a sold-out audience of 200.
He was joined by Jane Bunnett on sax, Guido Basso on flugelhorn, Dave Young on bass, pianist Joe Sealy and drummer Terry Clarke, all of whom happen to be fellow Order of Canada recipients.
Mr. Appleyard by then suffered from back pain and had trouble walking. He died at home two months later of undisclosed causes, leaving his son Peter, daughter Susan, partner Elfriede and first wife JoAnne.
Mr. Basso recalls that despite being ill, his friend retained his sense of showmanship at his last concert: “Peter did that thing where he leaves his vibraphone, in the middle of Sweet Georgia Brown, goes to the piano, plays with two fingers at lightning speed, then goes to the drums and challenges the drummer. The audience loved it.”
His daughter, Susan Appleyard, said her father made people feel good. “He always ended each show by saying, ‘Good night everyone. Thank you for coming. Keep swinging and have a great life.’”
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