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His final public performance took place in a century-old barn on his property in May with a band made up of fellow Order of Canada recipients. (Peter Grimaldi)
His final public performance took place in a century-old barn on his property in May with a band made up of fellow Order of Canada recipients. (Peter Grimaldi)


Peter Appleyard, ‘one of the giants’ of jazz Add to ...

In 1949, Mr. Appleyard moved to the British overseas territory of Bermuda at the behest of a close friend who helped him get gigs as a percussionist at the Princess Hotel and the Elbow Beach Surf Club.

According to his son, it was in Bermuda in his early 20s that Mr. Appleyard truly became a professional musician and set his sights on North America.

Making a name on the airwaves

Mr. Appleyard arrived in Toronto in 1951. Although he could not immediately obtain his musicians’ union card that would permit him to perform, he was not discouraged. He worked selling sporting goods at Simpsons and as an elevator man at the King Edward Hotel, while also studying with Toronto music educator Gordon Delamont, who taught harmony, counterpoint and music theory. The talented young English vibes player was recommended to jazz pianist Calvin Jackson, whose band was a big draw at Toronto’s glamorous Plaza Room of the Park Plaza Hotel.

“In the fifties in Toronto, Calvin Jackson was a rarity – an American, a black man who drove a big white convertible and had a white wife,” recalls writer and jazz aficionado Barry Callaghan, whose father, novelist Morley Callaghan, had been Mr. Jackson’s friend.

Barry Callaghan recalls that on his 15th birthday in 1952, he talked his way into the Plaza Room where he heard Mr. Appleyard for the first time, playing with Mr. Jackson: “My impression was of a callow young man but I was a punk kid myself. His instrument was not generally popular in the early fifties.”

Mr. Appleyard’s first known recording was 1954’s Calvin Jackson at the Plaza Room on the Vik label; he often performed with Mr. Jackson on CBC Radio before he started his own band a few years later. Over the next six decades he went on to have 22 total releases under his own name while appearing on about 60 others, in the estimation of his friend, Toronto jazz historian and broadcaster Ted O’Reilly. In the process, Mr. Appleyard made his instrument known to and loved by a wider public.By the sixties, he was doing well enough to bring over his parents from England. He married JoAnne Gent, whom he had met when she came to hear him at the Plaza Room. After their 1963 wedding, she became his business manager and helper. A daughter, Susan, arrived followed by a son, Peter.

The television age was in full flight and Mr. Appleyard recorded jingles for commercials, as well as “the musical bits behind the scenes,” said Mr. Appleyard Jr., on the quiz show Front Page Challenge, which had a live audience. On the Wayne and Shuster comedy show, he was principal percussionist.

“There were opportunities for live bands to support TV shows – a foreign idea today,” Mr. Appleyard Jr. said.

In 1961-62, with singer Patti Lewis, he hosted Patti and Peter on CBC Radio. He co-hosted Mallets and Brass in 1969 with Guido Basso on CBC Television. And in the late 1970s, his own TV jazz program, Peter Appleyard Presents, was syndicated throughout the United States.

Around the world with legends

Growing up, Mr. Appleyard Jr. frequently saw his father pack his van in the morning with his vibes, timpani, marimba, snare drum and cymbals, come home from work for supper with his family, then change into more formal clothes, shine his shoes and go off to play a gig with his band, usually at the Park Plaza rooftop bar, from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. “He did that six days a week, and never deviated from his standards. He told me, ‘Pete, if I make a wrong note at least I’ll look good.’”

His band members, including piano player John Sherwood, drummer Terry Clarke, guitarist Reg Schwager and bassist Dave Young, loved working with him because he did not hog the limelight and gave others opportunities to solo. “Dad was humble that way,” said Mr. Appleyard Jr.

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