Ed Bickert is, for many jazz fans, the classic Canadian guitarist. His sound, his approach to playing, his modesty and his ability to get to the heart of a song had him constantly in demand from the mid-1950s until his retirement 12 years ago. He turns 80 on Nov. 29, and to celebrate, many of Canada's best guitarists – including Lorne Lofsky, Reg Schwager, Jake Langley and Ted Quinlan – turned up for a tribute concert in Toronto, which airs Thursday on CBC Radio's Canada Live.
Here's a six-string look at Bickert's career:
The big hit
In the late 1950s, Bickert was in Moe Koffman's band, and in 1958, Koffman came up with a flute feature called The Swingin' Shepherd Blues. It was released as a single and became a sizable hit, rising to No. 23 on the Billboard Top 40.
"It just happened to have a little melody that was simple," Bickert recalls. "Moe Koffman, being the smart guy that he was, probably had some idea of what might become very popular. Let's see, was there anything else about that, aside from the fact that we had to play it whenever we were appearing anywhere?" He laughs. "I've certainly played it a few hundred times."
The big break
In 1974, Bickert appeared on a Paul Desmond album called Pure Desmond, and that, as Lofsky remembers, "put him on the international map."
Desmond wanted guitarist Jim Hall, with whom he had recorded before, but Hall was unavailable and recommended Ed Bickert. "Paul came here to play at a place called Bourbon Street, and we seemed to hit it off very nicely," Bickert recalls.
After Pure Desmond came out, bassist Don Thompson heard from Hall, who had run into Percy Heath of the Modern Jazz Quartet. "Percy said to him, 'Man, I just heard the Desmond record, and that's the best I ever heard you play.' And Jim says, 'Well, thanks, man. But that wasn't me – that was Ed Bickert.'"
Perhaps the only thing that kept Bickert from becoming as famous a guitarist as Jim Hall or Joe Pass was that he spent his entire career in Canada. Asked why he didn't try his luck on a bigger stage, he shrugs. "I think it just comes down to a case of being kind of timid," he says. "I'd heard a lot of negative things about being in the United States."
"He's not an aggressive guy, and in the United States, you really have to be," Thompson adds. "He was a reluctant bandleader."
But as Schwager suggests, staying in the background let Bickert be Bickert. "When the spotlight wasn't completely on him, that's when he would express himself," he says.
What made him special
Although Bickert's playing was widely appreciated by other musicians, nobody was more impressed by his work than other guitarists. "It helps if you are a player, because you notice things that most lay people wouldn't," Lofsky says. "And it's very deep. The way he'd put notes together to either accompany himself or other people was very unique. Also, the sound he got out of his guitar was very different. The first time I heard the Pure Desmond album, I thought that it was an electric piano playing the chords."
What made him difficult
Playing with Bickert, Thompson says, was easy, "because he's perfect." Thompson first worked with the guitarist in 1969, and played countless shows and sessions with him since then. "There were periods of time when we worked together every day for weeks on end."
Throughout, he says, Bickert's playing was impeccable. "The inner voice movement was perfect, the logic is impeccable, every chord was the best possible chord … it was perfection all the time.
"And that's what made it difficult," he adds with a laugh. "If I played one wrong note, it would be devastating. I would just think, 'I've ruined everything now!'"
Why he stopped
Although Bickert's guitar – a modified Telecaster with the name "BICKERT" in embossed tape on the pick guard – was onstage for the birthday concert, he didn't play it.
"I haven't played for 12 years, and I don't know if I could even remember how to hold the instrument right now," Bickert says 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."
Ed Bickert at 80 – A Jazz Celebration will be broadcast at 7 p.m. on Thursday on CBC Radio 2's Canada Live.