Inventive and unconventional, Al Neil was a relentless practitioner of the avant-garde. With his expressive, ever-shifting pursuits, perpetually below the surface of the mainstream, he defied categorization. Jazz musician, performance artist, writer, collageist and ongoing organizer of absurdly diverse objects into enormous assemblages, there was no one quite like Mr. Neil, Vancouver's gentle wild man of the arts.
When he died on Nov. 16. at the age of 93, he left behind a diverse body of work from more than 40 years of inhabiting the artistic outer reaches of Vancouver, driven not by ambition or desire for money but by a vision that propelled him to be different.
"Long ago, I learned that nobody could stop me from doing whatever I wanted to do," he told Jeff MacIntyre in The Globe and Mail in 2005. By then, Mr. Neil had become a cult figure, his distinctive legacy bringing a breadth of recognition that largely escaped him during his earlier years of creativity. That year, the city's Biennial of Performance Arts paid tribute to him with four evenings of concerts, screenings, readings and performances. Three years later, he was given an honorary doctorate of letters by the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. In 2014, the the 90-year-old original received a Mayor's Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement for a creative journey that touched down in so many corners.
Even Mr. Neil was hard-pressed to explain what drove his long, off-beat career. Rejecting suggestions that he was some kind of voyant or shaman, he told The Globe's Liam Lacey, after a substantial pause, that he supposed "the fancy modern word would be eclectic."
Mr. Neil first came to public attention as a cutting-edge, bebop piano player at The Cellar, a historic jazz club he co-founded in 1956. The venue attracted rising stars such as Charles Mingus, Art Pepper, whom Mr. Neil had to supply with heroin throughout his 10-day stay, and Ornette Coleman, whose abstract playing was to usher in a whole new approach to jazz. As house pianist, Mr. Neil often sat in with visiting musicians. His style attracted the notice of experimental American jazz poet Kenneth Patchen, who read at The Cellar. In 1959, Mr. Patchen, an early influence on Allen Ginsberg and other Beat poets, recorded a series of poems for influential Folkways Records, accompanied by the Alan Neil Quartet. Mr. Neil wrote the album's evocative liner notes in free-flowing prose that would have fit right in with the Beats.
In the mid-1960s, Mr. Neil gravitated to an increasingly free form of musical expression, heading a trio whose gigs turned into memorable, multidisciplinary performances involving tapes, chants, poetry, turntables feeds and other sounds that fit right in with the psychedelic music of the Sixties. At Vancouver's extraordinary Trips Festival in 1966, the Al Neil Trio was on the bill, along with the Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company, featuring their new singer Janis Joplin.
It was the beginning of his prolonged odyssey into the unorthodox, which took Mr. Neil's work as far as the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, where he caused a stir at an exhibition of contemporary Canadian art with his Mao and Richard Nixon-themed assemblages and eccentric music. "What was really on display was Al," remembered artist friend Chris Dikeakos. Yet only rarely did he stray far from Vancouver. "New York has William Burroughs, Los Angeles has Charles Bukowski and Vancouver has Al Neil," writer John Armstrong observed.
Alan Douglas Neil was born March 26, 1924, in Vancouver, the youngest of six siblings. He grew up in the city's working-class Mount Pleasant area, where his father was a butcher, his mother a seamstress. But there was a piano in the house that the young Alan took to with a passion that lasted his entire life. He began with classical music and was good enough to study under the noted composer Jean Coulthard. The Second World War interrupted his studies. He enlisted in the Royal Canadian Artillery and was sent overseas. Part of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, he fought with Canadian troops through to the end of the war, continuing to play the piano wherever he could find one, often in bombed-out buildings. In the bars of liberated Paris, he played boogie-woogie. But the war affected him deeply. Some have suggested the lasting trauma, which Mr. Neil called "the ceaseless nagging of invisible ghosts," spurred his rejection of the orthodox.
When Mr. Neil returned, he abandoned classical music for the bourgeoning bebop movement, influenced by copies of Downbeat magazine sent by his mother that brought the New York jazz scene to the young soldier at war. Mr. Neil had a day job at the post office. His nights were consumed by bebop at The Cellar. In 1963, however, dissatisfied with bebop's restrictions, he went quiet, taking time to clear himself of his own heroin habit. Heavily influenced by the Dada art movement, he also wanted to explore fresh musical territory.
A new trio emerged, with 19-year-olds Gregg Simpson and Richard Anstey on drums and bass joining the 41-year old piano player. "Here we were in our late teens, and Al had been at D-Day, for god's sake," Mr. Simpson recalled. "But he was so accepting. I think he liked our young energy."
The group quickly moved to the outer frontiers of music, throwing everything but the kitchen sink into their performances. But it was never uninteresting. They soon garnered a reputation as something to see in the city's evolving experimental arts scene. An approving reviewer of a retrospective LP by the Al Neil Trio called the music "strange even to ears already accustomed to [free form jazz artists] Ornette [Coleman], Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra." Mr. Neil continued to perform until the early 1990s, most often at the Western Front, Vancouver's centre of experimental arts and music. He took his music seriously, taking ample time to rehearse and, telling people: "I still like to think I'm playing jazz."
He also wrote several books, most notably Changes, a compelling tale of Mr. Neil's harrowing time as an addict and jazz musician. He termed its contents "a farrago of funk and feeling." In another significant artistic turn, starting in 1982, he began to assemble meticulously designed collages, for which he found a ready market in the city's art galleries. Many were autobiographical, including medical files from his doctors, personal and family snapshots, and tributes to artists Mr. Neil admired.
Away from his frenzied on-stage performances, Mr. Neil was surprisingly mellow and almost shy. Since 1966, he had been living in a bare-bones, unheated squatter's cabin on the shores of Burrard Inlet in North Vancouver, which became a work of art in its own right, as assemblages piled up outside. The quirky heritage cottage was recently saved from destruction by an artist-driven campaign that allowed it to be moved to another location. There is hope it can be used for an artist-in-residence program.
In 1979, after two failed marriages, Mr. Neil began a relationship with artist Carole Itter that lasted until his death. He leaves Ms. Itter and two daughters from his first marriage. He was predeceased by his step-daughter.
Mr. Neil continued to play the piano almost every day well into his 80s at Ms. Itter's home, still in a manner uniquely his own. "The keyboard didn't stop moving. It was like a crystal that was going to crack in half," she recalled. "And then he'd start to sing. He'd holler and vocalize. He would be in another realm."