There was a story Alain de Grosbois liked to tell about his years producing broadcasts for the CBC from the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. This one came from 1996, by which point he'd been overseeing the broadcast of festival concerts for more than a decade and a half.
"He was in the recording truck, doing some mixing," recalls Peter Downie, who had worked as an announcer for Mr. de Grosbois for many of those broadcasts. "Suddenly, there was, as he described it, 'a very cultured voice' behind him, asking him a question about the mixing and complimenting him on what he was doing. So he turned around, and it was Charlie Watts."
Instead of his usual gig as drummer for the Rolling Stones, Mr. Watts was in Montreal that year as a bandleader, fronting a jazz quintet that was performing at the festival with singer Bernard Fowler.
"Alain was a bit surprised at seeing the drummer for the Rolling Stones standing behind him, but what he kept mentioning to me was what a gentleman Charlie was, how courteous and how respectful he was," Mr. Downie adds about his friend, Mr. de Grosbois, who died late last month at the age of 67. "I thought that was revealing, because those were the qualities that Alain really valued. Whether you were putting a trailer hitch on his car or were the drummer for the Rolling Stones, he really valued people who treated other people well."
Alain de Grosbois was someone whose contributions to Canadian music, particularly its jazz scene, stood in inverse proportion to his own fame. A producer who spent most of his career at the CBC, he was instrumental in launching Montreal's jazz festival, created the long-running and influential CBC Radio show Jazz Beat, and produced albums for artists ranging from the francophone rock band Offenbach to jazz pianist Joey Calderazzo.
But unless you were fond of reading the fine print, odds are you never noticed his name.
"In his case, I think we can talk about a true unsung hero of music in Canada," said André Ménard, co-founder and artistic director of the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. Thanks to his position at the CBC and Radio-Canada, Mr. de Grosbois had the ability to grant or deny national exposure to countless musicians, but never let that power affect his relationships with artists or concert promoters. "That was not the way he would deal with others," Mr. Ménard said. "It made him a very pleasant person to be with. We owe him a lot, for sure."
Alain de Grosbois was born July 10, 1947, in Varennes, Que., to Guy Boucher de Grosbois and his wife, Rosette Pinard. The family was francophone and, according to Mr. de Grosbois's son Olivier, not musical at all, although his father's uncle, Jean de Martel, was "a music and opera lover, [and] gave him his passion for music when he was a teenager."
Growing up with three brothers and two sisters, Mr. de Grosbois undoubtedly had plenty of opportunities to appreciate the advantages of co-operation and respect for others. He went to school in Montreal and studied at the Collège Sainte-Marie on Rue de Bleury, which later, as the Gesù Centre de créativité, would become an important venue for the city's jazz festival.
His time with the CBC started in Vancouver, where he produced concert broadcasts. He recorded his first jazz concerts for the program Jazz en liberté in 1972, and returned to Montreal in 1978, where he took on the role of co-ordinating producer for live recordings.
A year later, he had the idea of pairing the Montreal blues rock band Offenbach with the Vic Vogel Big Band for a concert that would be recorded for broadcast. "That was like 20 years before the Brian Setzer Orchestra mixed rock 'n' roll and big band music," Mr. Ménard said. "It was fantastic." Released as Offenbach en fusion, it went gold and in 1980 was awarded the Félix for rock album of the year.
Also in 1979, Mr. Ménard, along with Alain Simard, attempted to mount the first Montreal jazz festival, but were unable to book more than a pair of concerts because, as Mr. Ménard put it, "we had only the box office money. We needed some other sources of revenue."
By arranging to broadcast festival concerts over the CBC, Mr. de Grosbois provided that revenue. But he did more – he put the Montreal festival on the map and underscored that there was more to the Canadian jazz scene than what happened in downtown Toronto.
"I thought he was crazy when he first came to me with this idea," Mr. Downie recalled. "Logistically, it seemed to be a real challenge." Mr. de Grosbois had a gift for getting his team to meet overwhelming challenges, however. Where some producers would obsess over technical details, Mr. de Grosbois was entirely focused on capturing a performance. He would explain to his crew what he wanted, and then "left the rest of that business up to those he hired," Mr. Downie said. "He made everybody want to do their best work. His concentration was entirely on the performance."
That approach reached its acme with Jazz Beat, which aired from 1983 to 2007 on CBC Radio. Each week, the program offered performances by one Canadian and one international jazz act, along with interviews by host Katie Malloch. "Jazz musicians, whether they were in Regina or Calgary or Campbell River, knew that they had a friend in Alain de Grosbois," Mr. Downie noted.
"He had great taste and great foresight and great knowledge about music," Mr. Ménard said. "That's how he told us about Oliver Jones. I mean, we had never heard about Oliver Jones, because he had retreated to Puerto Rico to be a pianist in a hotel for very many years, and when he came back to Montreal he was very discreetly on the scene. Alain pointed to him as one of the greatest pianists in Canada, which was absolutely true."
Being a musician himself, Mr. de Grosbois was quick to recognize talent, and eager to promote it. But when it came to his own music, Mr. de Grosbois was intensely private. "He had a beautiful piano in his apartment, a grand piano, and I never heard him play, which is kind of typical of Alain," Mr. Downie said. "He was one of those rare people who consciously avoided the limelight."
Moreover, said Mr. Ménard, he was "very discreet" about showing off his musical acumen. "He would refrain from being too strong about this aspect of his knowledge because he trusted the people who had decided to be at the forefront and make music. He had respect for that."
After Alain de Grosbois retired from the CBC in 2004, he spent his time fishing, boating and learning to play golf. He died at his home on Jan. 27, of cancer. He is survived by his partner, Diane Lynch; his sons, Olivier and Antoine; and his siblings, Pierre, Luc, Daniel, Anne and Elaine.
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