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Music Jazz virtuoso Ed Bickert influenced a generation of Canadian guitarists

Ed Bickert.

Don Vickery/Handout

If a quiet mind is considered a crown, Ed Bickert was the king of calm jazz guitarists. The Canadian great was a celebrated introvert and a genius in the background. His nimble style and four-bar wit demanded to be heard, but only in the best hushed, economical and distinctively harmonic ways. An appreciator of turtleneck sweaters, he cleared his throat only if he had something absolutely necessary to say, and although he usually spoke with his Fender Telecaster, occasionally he used words.

“Shut up,” Mr. Bickert, bushy of brow and firmly laconic in demeanour, would tell chatting audience members at Toronto clubs such as Bourbon Street and George’s Spaghetti House, without missing a beat, of course.

On the more formal occasion of opening for French violinist Stéphane Grappelli at Massey Hall in late 1981, Mr. Bickert spoke softly to the crowd between tunes. “Can’t hear you,” returned an interrupting voice from the dark hall. “Well,” the guitarist replied, unruffled, “you’ll just have to listen, because I don’t talk loud.”

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Unwittingly, the musician who played chill and close to the vest had articulated his own epitaph.

Mr. Bickert, retired since 2000, died on Feb. 28 at Toronto’s Bridgepoint Active Healthcare hospital, because of complications from cancer. He was 86. The initial report of his death was discreet. A small death notice in a Toronto newspaper noted the passing of a “unique and celebrated force in Canadian music” known for his “inimitable sense of humour and candour.” Succinct and clear in life, the splendid introvert who micro-managed the notes he chose to play would have appreciated the concise summation.

“He would go places on the fret board where others wouldn’t,” musician and Toronto jazz broadcaster Bill King told The Globe and Mail this week. “And if he had something to say musically, he said it, and then he got out of the way.”

Edward Isaac Bickert was born in the southern Manitoba village of Hochfeld on Nov. 29, 1932, a banner day for Canadian grain according to regional newspapers. Raised in Vernon, B.C., he took up the guitar at either age eight or 12, depending on who is telling the story. His father was an old-time fiddler; his mother, a pianist. Though he received basic instruction on the instrument from his elder brother, he was essentially self-taught.

He was a member of the high-school orchestra. (Today, admirers of Mr. Bickert’s sophisticated approach to the guitar often describe his style as orchestral.) On Saturday nights, he played in district dance bands. In these groups, popular music of the day was the theme. Nonetheless, he tried to work in the jazz ideas he heard from listening to records and any concerts he was able to attend.

His passion for music drew him to radio. He worked as an announcer and engineer at a station in Vernon, but, in 1952, seeking better and bigger opportunities in the field, he moved to Toronto. While becoming familiar with the city’s jazz scene, he worked as an engineer at the radio station CFRB for three years.

As a member of the Norm Amadio Trio, he played after-hours clubs such as the House of Hambourg. On Friday nights, the industrious upstart gigged with Hagood Hardy’s quartet. On Sundays, he played with a fivesome led by saxophonist and flautist Moe Koffman.

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“There is as much doing on the jazz scene in the Toronto area as there is in any other large city anywhere, if not more,” Mr. Bickert told The Globe in 1957, a time which saw the suave arrival of “cool jazz.” Landmark jazz events of that year included Chet Baker’s self-admitted introduction to heroin, as well as the release of the Miles Davis albums Miles Ahead and, yes, Birth of the Cool.

That same year also saw the release of Mr. Kaufman’s album Hot and Cool Sax, which included the eventually iconic composition Swinging Shepherd Blues. The LP and breezy song (which became an unlikely hit in 1958) marked Mr. Bickert’s first recorded presence.

His playing – characterized by an innate harmonic sense, lyrical and rhythmic ease and a balanced, gentle tone – was rooted in bebop and influenced by guitarists Barney Kessel, Jimmy Raney and the quick-handed Tal Farlow (who, in turn, named Mr. Bickert as his favourite guitarist in the pioneering reference tome Feather’s Encyclopedia of Jazz.)

On a personal level, Mr. Bickert in that era met Madeline Mulholland, a private secretary who would become his wife. She toiled nine to five; the guitarist’s work was done at night. “We see each other for dinner,” she told The Globe’s Barbara Whalen, “and on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.”

Describing his musical approach, Mr. Bickert said at the time he didn’t attempt to “express a philosophy or paint a picture.” Rather, he thought in terms of melodies, rhythms and harmonies. “I try to produce as many of them as possible.”

As far as his aspirations, the modest, soft-spoken young man declared his intention to work with Oscar Peterson, the great Canadian pianist. That happened, as did much, much more, either as an accompanist or as a principal in various ensembles. Over his career he was an in-demand sideman to touring American jazzers Paul Desmond, Red Norvo, Milt Jackson and Frank Rosolino. He was the guitarist on the 1986 album Rosemary Clooney Sings the Music of Jimmy Van Heusen.

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In Canada, Mr. Bickert was a charter member and featured soloist with Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass. By the 1970s, his reputation was firmly established. He had the ability to “combine in his solos the logic of a mathematician and the grace of an angel,” The Globe’s Jack Batten wrote in 1976.

Mr. Bickert’s big break internationally had come two years earlier, when he appeared on Paul Desmond’s 1974 album Pure Desmond. According to Canadian bassist Don Thompson, after the album came out, guitarist Jim Hall (Mr. Desmond’s usual accompanist) bumped into American bassist Percy Heath, who said to him, “Man, I just heard the Desmond record, and that’s the best I ever heard you play.” To which the chagrined Mr. Hall replied, “Well, thanks, man. But that wasn’t me – that was Ed Bickert.'"

The confusion was complimentary, but rare for Mr. Bickert, whose erudite approach was not often mistaken for others. “When he had a concept in his head, it was his,” Mr. Thompson told The Globe after Mr. Bickert’s death. “Other guitarists would try to figure out what Ed was doing, but Ed never tried to play like anyone else. He was a pure artist, and he was himself all the time.”

Mr. Bickert formed his own trio in the mid-1970s, initially with frequent collaborator Mr. Thompson (bass) and Terry Clarke (drums). A live Bickert-Thompson album of duets, Sackville 4005, received the Juno Award for the best jazz recording of 1979.

Part of Mr. Bickert’s legend has to do with the kind of instrument he played. Where jazz guitarists tend to favour hollow-body models, Mr. Bickert’s – a modified Telecaster with the name “BICKERT” in embossed tape on the pick guard – was a solid-body, built for country and rock.

“Ed stood apart for the poetry and polish of his playing, and remarkably all of that sensuality was played on that Telecaster, a hard exclamation-point of an instrument,” said author Marc Myers, a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and founder of Jazz Wax, a popular daily jazz blog. “Ed tamed the showboat instrument, making it sound like a guitar on a first date.”

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Though he was singular in so many ways, Mr. Bickert, a member of the Order of Canada, influenced a generation of Canadian guitarists. One of the leading ones, Reg Schwager, spoke to The Globe: “He changed everything for me. Nobody sounded like him before he came around, and nobody has sounded like him since.”

Though Mr. Bickert taught briefly at the Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto during the early 1960s and at the Banff Centre in Alberta in the late 1970s, he wasn’t a natural instructor. “He didn’t verbalize things," Mr. Schwager said. "If I asked him how he played something, he’d say, ‘I’m not really sure. But if I do it again, let me know.’ ”

With the death of his wife, Madeline, in 2000, the guitarist retreated from the jazz world. “Madeline kept him focused, on track, and without her it was very different and difficult for him," said Mr. Bickert’s son, Jeffrey, in a recent interview with Billboard magazine. "So he let that go, ended up working in the garden, caring for the pool he never swam in.”

Mr. Bickert later slipped and fell, breaking both of his arms. He did play again, but he wasn’t quite the same. In 2012, on the occasion of his 80th birthday and a tribute concert for him in Toronto, Mr. Bickert spoke to The Globe.

“I haven’t played for 12 years, and I don’t know if I could even remember how to hold the instrument right now,” he said with a laugh. "No, I just packed it up completely. Maybe I’d had enough. My wife passed away, and at the time, I was having some problems with arthritis, and I was starting to drink quite heavily, and those things combined sort of finished me off. I just never tried to get back to it.

“I envy or admire people who keep going until they drop. But it just wasn’t for me.”

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Mr. Bickert leaves his daughter, Lindsey; sons, Jeffrey and Timothy; and three grandchildren. ​

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