A fan like Ken Pickering knew the great jazz cities included Paris, New York and New Orleans. His lifelong obsession helped place Vancouver on the list.
Jazz greats passed through Vancouver over the years, but it was not until the launching of what is now the Vancouver International Jazz Festival in the mid-1980s that the city gained a reputation as a jazz hot spot.
Mr. Pickering, who has died at 66, was a co-founder of the festival and a programmer of daring, insight and innovation. An ardent fan, he had an ear for pairing musicians who might otherwise never have played together. The festival avoided the fragmentation to be heard at some festivals, offering an eclectic mixture, while also introducing Vancouver players to other musicians, programmers and journalists from around the world, opening the doors for them to be hired at prestigious gigs.
The transformative moment in Mr. Pickering’s life came one day as a teenager on a regular visit to the Record Gallery, a music shop on Robson Street in downtown Vancouver. From the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix and Cream, his musical tastes had been conventional for his era. Then he heard the improvisational alto saxophone of Eric Dolphy and experienced an epiphany. In the moment of hearing Mr. Dolphy’s atonal bebop harmony, he embarked on a quest, never to be sated, to experience all that jazz offered.
“There was something in the spirit of all those instruments,” Mr. Pickering once told the journalist Douglas Todd. “I just wanted more.”
Influenced by Bill Reiter’s Groovin’ Blue show on CKLG-FM radio, the teenager formed a club at Templeton High with his childhood friend John Orysik. They distributed flyers and slapped up posters reading only “MAC is coming” all over their Eastside Vancouver school. On the big day, dozens of long-haired students showed up only to learn MAC stood for Music Appreciation Club, a lunch-hour group dedicated to jazz. The crowd dwindled to a hardcore group of supporters after a few meetings. Perhaps the club’s peak came the day they managed to play on the school’s public-address system all 13 minutes of Sly and the Family Stone’s soul-funk jam, Sex Machine.
“We weren’t just interested in jazz,” Mr. Orysik recalled. “We were obsessed.”
A friendship with Rod Heinz, an Edmonton-born labourer and photographer a decade older, gave the youth a fuller understanding of the music. The mentor’s massive record collection and deep knowledge offered instruction in the genre’s history from Duke Ellington’s foundations through Charlie Parker’s early bebop to the innovators such as Chet Baker and John Coltrane onto the great jazz vocalists such as Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan.
On graduation, Mr. Pickering saved money from a clerical job to explore Europe. He attended jazz shows in London before traversing the continent. He was on a Greek island when his money finally ran out, forcing his return home.
The son of a tire recapper and a homemaker, he laboured himself as a warehouseman and mail carrier. In 1975, he opened a small record store on Main Street dedicated to jazz, avant-garde and international music. Two years later, the shop moved to a busier location in the Kitsilano neighbourhood on West Fourth Avenue, the former heart of a hippie enclave, where he stocked new hard-to-get imports and second-hand, out-of-print classics. He named his shop Black Swan Records after a defunct jazz-and-blues label founded in Harlem.
The storefront soon became a landmark, readily spotted for the mural depicting musicians on the side of the store. Inside, the interior was as rustic and spartan as a summer cabin with homemade wooden shelving for the records and a couch by the picture window for lounging, jazz magazines arrayed on a table for perusing.
Aficionados hung out at the store, where local musicians stocked their own recordings on consignment. Black Swan became a place of pilgrimage for visiting players. The soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, a New Yorker who lived in Paris, once popped in on a rare North American tour. After a long survey of the store’s stock, he said, in his soft-spoken manner, “Very catholic collection you have here.” Mr. Pickering accepted the comment as the highest praise.
With the store more community centre than profit centre, its proprietor juggled jobs, including the delivery of advertising flyers to West End apartments, to keep it open.
Meanwhile, Mr. Orysik became a disc jockey for CJAZ-FM, an all-jazz station broadcasting at 100,000 watts. When it closed after five years, he joined Mr. Pickering and fellow CJAZ jockey Robert Kerr on a program called Jazz Forum on listener-supported radio station CFRO, known as Co-op Radio. The trio found the burgeoning local music scene to be too spotty, as jazz clubs emerged only to close soon after.
In late 1984, they formed the Pacific (later Coastal) Jazz and Blues Society, a non-profit group dedicated to promoting music, with Mr. Pickering as programmer, Mr. Orysik as promoter and Mr. Kerr as executive director responsible for finances. The society’s first production involved two legendary sold-out shows featuring the pianist Michel Petrucciani at the Western Front, an artist-run performance venue.
The wild success of the first engagement was not repeated in all of the society’s early shows, but the group managed to put on a successful weeklong jazz festival that summer with musicians from Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. The three men gambled their own money on financing the festival. A year later, the festival had a major corporate sponsor in a tobacco company and some backing from the Expo 86 world’s fair, setting the stage for a festival, now sponsored by a bank, that claims to sell a half-million tickets and generate $43-million in economic activity.
Mr. Pickering never missed a festival, although he was only able to attend a single show this summer while receiving treatment for throat cancer, which spread.
Kenneth Neil Pickering was born on Feb. 22, 1952. He died on Aug. 10 in North Vancouver, B.C. He leaves Christine Fedina, his wife of 16 years. He also leaves a brother.
Special to The Globe and Mail