When Art Britton put his horn to his lips, heads came up, eyes widened, conversations stopped and bodies responded. In smoky clubs or in diningroom jam sessions, his bewitching alto sax solos and profound understanding of harmony made him the driving force of a late-1960s jazz renaisssance in Regina that blossomed into a still-strong scene. The man whose musicianship and hospitality brought along the next generation of beboppers died on March 5 at the age of 81 of cancer.
Born on July 23, 1930, in Eston, Sask., he was the youngest by five years of farmer William and piano teacher May Britton’s three children.
Able to carry a tune by the age of 2, he also displayed a profound sensitivity to music.
Whenever his sister sang Baby’s Boat, he would stop whatever he was doing and come to the piano, finally bursting into tears.
“Dad seemed to feel notes and melodies to the very core of his body,” recalled his daughter Jan Gullickson.
Given a toy violin at 4, he immediately began to play along when his older siblings practised piano. By the time he was 5 he was touring with his sister Mary to play at public functions, talent shows and dances.
Britton was 10 when someone gave his father a soprano sax in payment for a job.
Much to his parents’ dismay, the youngster quickly adopted it, sitting in the Model T out in the barn to practise. He was not yet 11, and quite a bit shorter than the microphone, when he played the sax in a radio talent audition, astonishing the audience with his full tone and melodious playing and inspiring an impromptu postproduction concert.
His parents sent him to high school in Saskatoon so he could study violin under Dorothy Overholt of the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra. He would walk downtown to play gigs at the Bessborough Hotel, earning enough to pay his room and board, and returning to his lodgings with his violin case full of leftover sandwiches.
Upon graduation he studied violin and music theory for two years at Mount Royal College in Calgary, returning to help out on the farm in 1950. Soon after marrying in late 1956, he and Genevieve Slakinski, an X-ray technician, moved to Saskatoon.
In the city, while Genny worked at a doctor’s office, Britton and a boyhood pal opened a Mercedes Benz dealership – cars were his other great passion – and until 1963 he fixed cars, played first violin and alto sax in the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra and plunged into the city’s jazz scene. During those years, according to Ken Mitchell in The Jazz Province, guitarist Gordie Brandt “practically owned the word jazz in Saskatoon,” and Britton frequently performed with him, apprenticing with the best jazzmen in town.
After the car dealership closed, Britton worked for a year in Brandt’s music store before moving to the small town of Cupar northeast of Regina, where he taught high school music. Though he never said so, those close to him concur that he didn’t really like it: “He just wanted to play,” Gullickson said.
After several years of driving to Regina on weekends to perform, he moved his family there in 1967. Genny took a job at the General Hospital, and Art became a stay-at-home dad and occasional mechanic by day, a musician by night.
Besides playing regular gigs, often with trumpeter Ron Brooks and drummer Stu Ballentyne, Britton hosted weekend jam sessions that would run all night. “The house would be absolutely jammed with people, the windows would be wide open and live jazz would spill out of the house well into the wee hours of the morning,” his daughter remembered. “Interestingly, I never recall our neighbours complaining. It was more like, ‘The Brittons are having a party ... again!’ ”
But they weren’t just parties.
Blessed with an analytical mind and more musical training than most of his colleagues, Britton would rehash the evening’s job with his band, demonstrating how a chord could have been voiced, or a solo improved with fewer notes.
The sessions formed the basis of the Regina Jazz Workshop Band and, in 1977, the Regina Jazz Society. The lively local scene attracted “Jazz Doctor” Ed Lewis to the university, resulting in instruction there and later in high schools.
Britton’s understanding of music frequently floored his peers.
Pianist Arnie Davis recalled that Britton would call chord changes that made his bandmates ask, “Whaaat?” But he was always right. He also played electric bass – “nothing fancy,” said Brooks, “but relentlessly so lid, all the right notes.”
Those right notes came in part from listening to the masters.
“He was the most devoted listener to music I’d ever met,” said Brooks: Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Hank Mobley. The music could be playing for six hours straight, and if someone started a conversation, Britton would just turn up the stereo.
His later years were difficult.
He lost his wife to breast cancer in 1992, his son Miles to a heart attack in 2007. Britton himself suffered a double lung collapse as a complication of surgery in 2004. Though he survived, he was not able to play as he once had.
Along with his two remaining children and nine grandchildren, many of Britton’s musical friends and protégés attended his memorial reception, sharing live jazz and memories in the Regency Ballroom where he had played so many gigs.
Special to The Globe and Mail